Efforts Lag to 'Fix' US Computers by 2000

The millennium is about three years away, but concern is mounting that's not enough time for computer wizards to perform the magic needed to avert a government computer catastrophe in 2000.

Year 2000 (also known as Y2K) is when government computer programs may become befuddled by the shift from the 20th century to the 21st. Such computers calculate everything from how much you owe the IRS to when to send out Social Security checks.

With the potential for chaos looming, the government has its best people on this one, right? No, according to Rep. Connie Morella (R) of Maryland, the very concerned chair of the technology subcommittee of the House Science Committee.

A recent General Accounting Office report has only added to her concern. "The GAO 1997 High-Risk report should be another wake-up call to all federal agencies on this impending crisis," says Ms. Morella.

Moreover, the longer the government waits, the more expensive the problem will be to fix. Estimates for the repair work to government computers alone run about $30 billion, but some experts say that figure will grow as the deadline gets closer and the US has to pay more for technicians with the know-how to help. (Globally, the estimated cost to the public and private sectors is expected to total nearly $600 billion.)

Adding to the confusion is a new report by the White House's Office of Management and Budget that estimates the big fix will cost only $2.3 billion. "I am very skeptical of the OMB number," says Rep. Stephen Horn (R) of California, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Government Management, Information, and Technology. He has set hearings on Monday to air the issue.

The computer world has long foreseen the day when dating would be a problem. Almost all but the newest computer systems contain two-digit date codes. They assume that any given year exists in the 1900s. In 2000, most computers will look at the last two digits and assume the year is 1900.

Line by line, all affected computer programs must be rewritten. "This is like pulling weeds. You have to just get in there and pull each line of code," says Sally Katzen, OMB administrator of information and regulatory affairs.

The garden is big. About 1 trillion lines of code in the US alone must be identified and rewritten. Industry experts warn that neither government nor the private sector is moving fast enough.

"This is real stuff," warns Bob Cohen of the Information Technology Association of America, a computer-industry organization in Arlington, Va. "The federal level of awareness is pretty good, but the level of action is different [than it is in private industry]."

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