Turning Sausage Back Into The Pig

The Year 2000 Problem in Northfield, Vermont

by Dennis Báthory-Kitsz

Copyright ©1999 by Dennis Báthory-Kitsz

Part 1: How it happened, what Y2K affects, embedded systems
Part 2: Your money, your electricity, your telephones, your television
Part 3: A block of cheese, Vermont independence, elsewhere
Part 4: So you own a computer, what you can do, what next

The Year 2000 problem -- Y2K -- comes visiting in just a year, right after the biggest holiday of the century. Are you ready? Are the people and services you depend on ready?

Your Money

Worried about your money? A few places are struggling, but not Northfield. Two financial institutions have been ordered to fix their Y2K problems as late as mid-December, including a New Mexico bank. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation is hard-line about Y2K, and has ordered the bank to appoint a Y2K manager immediately, and present a plan in 30 days to deal with "risks that may be caused by failures of the bank's core business practices."

     Northfield Savings Bank has taken a practical approach: They buy out-of-the-box software that's certified for Y2K. Jim Poulin is in charge of Y2K at NSB, and he calls the bank "vendor vanilla", relying on modern packaged software. NSB has tested and identified problems, and has certified its core banking, mortgage and email systems as ready for the millennium. Even their PC desktops and servers -- on a three-year rollover in any case -- have been upgraded by Compaq.

     Poulin says Y2K at Northfield is "more boring than I thought it was going to be. It leads me to feel more comfortable." Aside from waiting for a handful of vendors to report their success with Y2K, NSB has finished their work. They're part of BankNorth's 24-hour access system, which is also on track meeting its FDIC first-quarter 1999 deadline.

     If there's any problem, it's that NSB doesn't have backup power -- and even if they needed one, industrial-quality generators are now backordered six to nine months. The banks are interconnected, so "if we can power up one branch, we'll be in good shape," Poulin reports.

     The only thing NSB really can't control is a the run on the bank, which Poulin feels can be instigated by media reports like a recent 60 Minutes program, which showed people stockpiling food and weapons in preparation for Y2K disaster.

Your Electricity

Northfield Electric administers your power and is updating the billing systems that do it, but the village doesn't actually do its own power monitoring or line work. Green Mountain Power handles that, and has been working on the Y2K issue for six years, according to Dorothy Schnure, Manager of Corporate Communications. They began updating customer service programs a year ago, replacing older software with a Y2K-compliant PeopleSoft system that was put to work just this month.

     The nation's power grid is the crucial part. As a contingency, GMP workers won't be partying next New Year's Eve, but will be up all night at substations and generating plants to make sure nothing goes wrong. Even if the phone system goes down, they have a full emergency plan that was tested during last year's ice storm, and uses radio and cell phone connection to the Vermont Emergency Management Agency, the Red Cross, and the National Guard. Old-fashioned ham radio is queued for backup. Throughout, GMP has been working with the New England Power Pool.

     GMP's generators are not date dependent, but that's not necessarily the case with the rest of the nation's power grid, so GMP follows a 15-step emergency plan called Operating Procedure Number 4. OP4 guides power management from load curtailment by business volunteers through rotating blackouts across the state. Blackouts have never been needed in Vermont, but if the Y2K failure cascades nationwide, GMP knows which circuits must stay in service for hospitals, police, and community safety. At worst, GMP will rotate two-hour 'takedowns' with no prolonged outages.

     Having learned from the 1966 Northeast blackout, GMP has also readied diesel-powered cold-start systems so they can help put this corner of the a failed national grid back on line.

Your Telephones

To be safe, many experts advise investing in a cell or PCS phone -- modern equipment with Y2K issues resolved. But according to Northfield manager Terry Teeter, TDS Telecom has wrapped up most of its Y2K issues already.

     TDS Telecom's home office in Madison, Wisconsin, began working in 1996 to renovate and upgrade the host switches of all its local companies. Switches provide dialtones and route call in and out of the telephone exchange, and the AT&T 5ESS switch used in Northfield is new and Y2K compliant. Teeter also reported that all TDSNet Internet routing equipment has recently been upgraded.

     Not everything's finished. TDS Telecom is working with its handful of large customers in Northfield whose PBX systems aren't yet Y2K ready. Manufacturers have been called in to provide information and advice.

     In case of a power grid failure, Northfield TDS Telcom has backup power generation that will keep running as long as fuel supplies hold out. They do recommend that customers check their portable phones and other phone equipment such as fax machines, which need house power to operate. Also, if your telephone or fax machine have date functions, they should be checked by the manufacturer.

     It appears that Y2K problems with phone service won't originate in Northfield, though according to a GTE report, rural telephone systems in other parts of the country are still far from being ready.

Your Television

Trans-Video is a small independent cable company that draws on networks and satellite links. All their own equipment is Y2K compliant except their billing (which is being updated now) and their character generator. As long as the signal suppliers to this self-contained cable company stay working, the only change you'll see by New Year's Day 2000 is a new look to Trans-Video's Channel 7.

Next week: Vermont's self-sufficiency, and how you can make sure you computer is Y2K ready