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Profits of Doom

How a costly computer glitch turned into a once-in-a-millennium bonanza for high-tech companies.

Telecommunications companies are probably less susceptible to Y2K problems than many other technology-based businesses--dial tones aren't date-sensitive--but White says his company will spend "at least" $50 million on various software issues, including upgrading the billing system and making sure that work orders aren't issued for the wrong day of the week. The company has been battling the beast for two years and expects to have all of its critical systems compliant by the summer of 1999.

Some minor glitches, affecting only internal systems, may not get done in time, White adds, "but our objective is that our customers perceive no Year 2000 impact. Period. That way the press can't come back and have a field day with US West."

White acknowledges that there's little chance that US West will recover its massive Y2K investment from added service, but he insists that "other efficiencies" will come out of the process. "We have technology that's ten years old and at the end of its life cycle," he notes. "We will end up having upgraded our computing and network environment to a very current level, and we will see some gains coming back from that. Whether it will be a net gain is hard to tell. But if we did a poor job of this, what do you suppose the impact would be on our revenue stream?"

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It's best to take the long view when considering the Y2K quandary. The short one has already cost too much. The whole mess arose out of a simple set of keystrokes, the decision to designate years in two digits rather than four. That decision may have been justified back in the days when electronic brains took up entire rooms and memory capacity was at a premium. Yet the practice survived, through generation after generation of instant upgrade and instant obsolescence.

No one dreamed those old codes would still be running right up to the brink of the millennium. No one looked ahead. And now the shortcuts of the past have caught up with us. The bill falls due at century's end.

The irony of the situation isn't lost on White. "This all started because we wanted to shorten a date and be very efficient," he says. "Now we have the Year 2000 problem, and we've already shortened it to Y2K. Here we go again.

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