Telcos dig in for year 2000

Canada's major telecom carriers are banding together to reinforce the country's communications backbone against the impending onslaught of 2000.

But individual organisations are still on the hook for ensuring their internal phone systems and PBXs continue to function when they ring in the new century.

The carrier group, known as the Year 2000 Telecommunications Industry Forum, will share information and best practices to combat Y2K issues among its members.

"We're confident we'll meet our commitments and the year 2000 will come and go without a hitch," said forum representative Darrin Shewchuk.

The group's main priority is to ensure its customers are able to get basic phone service.

"We're focusing first of all on calls getting completed," Shewchuk said. "Beyond that we'll look at the next tier down such as, for example, the features or various services."

For forum member Bell Canada, top priority items include emergency 911, local, long-distance, toll-free, wireless and operator services, said Mike Feldstein, vice-president of Bell Canada's year 2000 project. Feldstein was speaking at a Canadian Business Telecommunications Alliance (CBTA) forum on the Year 2000.

The key to the telecom forum's success will be interoperability testing between members' equipment, according to Shewchuk.

"We need to make sure calls go through from one carrier to another properly," he said. "The fixes one carrier makes have to be compatible with other carriers."

The forum's goal is for all members to have their Y2K fixes in place by the end of 1998. That will allow them to devote 1999 to interoperability testing.

While the forum believes its members will be ready for 2000, the picture for small, independent Canadian telcos and the international scene isn't as clear.

According to Bell's Feldstein, the Stentor telecommunications alliance is working with the independent Canadian companies to monitor their year 2000 progress.

And the industry forum has volunteered to work with the International Telecommunications Union to help prepare international carriers for Y2K.

"The general sense is that North America will be prepared, parts of Europe are very well prepared, but there are certainly concerns about other parts of the world that aren't showing a lot of dedication to the issue," Shewchuk said.

While Bell will support its customers in their efforts to research their voice-related year 2000 problems, Feldstein explained the company will not be responsible for actually correcting customer premise equipment.

"The problem is there are a lot of variations, permutations and combinations out there," Feldstein said. "What will satisfy one customer is not at all the combination of things another customer has.

"One of the positions Bell is taking is customers have to take some ownership for understanding what they have and thinking out their testing plans."

Bell will supply customers with information regarding which equipment and program versions are Y2K compliant. The company has an area on its Web site listing both Bell's Y2K efforts and updates on how various vendors are meeting compliance.

However, Bell is hamstrung in its update efforts, Feldstein noted. Vendors are often hesitant to release specific information about Y2K compliance, fearing that doing so may increase their legal liability.

Shops striving to protect their voice systems need to follow three basic steps, Feldstein said.

The first is to conduct an inventory of equipment that is not Y2K compliant. The second is to decide which equipment absolutely needs to be fixed. And the third is to actually implement fixes and test them for interoperability with suppliers and customers.

Another important tip, said Ted Clark, vice-president for Ontario Hydro's year 2000 project, who also spoke at the CBTA forum, is to treat vendor compliance assurances with scepticism. All equipment should be tested.

"We've had several situations where we've had letters of assurance from vendors that their product is Y2K compliant, only to find out from our own testing it isn't," he said. "In terms of critical systems, you really need to satisfy yourself it is compliant."

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