Y2K global summit tries to ID riskiest areas
by David Orenstein
NEW YORK (IDG) -- Concern about the year 2000 problem is bringing the world together in New York this week, but the likelihood that the meeting will produce a clear picture of global year 2000 compliance is scant.
Year 2000 coordinators from 170 nations are meeting at the United Nations in hopes of assembling a coherent picture of how well the globe's computer systems will be prepared for the new century. A better sense of the planet's readiness is crucial for large U.S. businesses that have had some of their biggest year 2000 problems trying to find out how well foreign trading partners and consumers will respond to the date rollover.
"We're at too high a level of abstraction to quantify risks," said John A. Koskinen, chairman of President Clinton's council on year 2000 conversion. But this week's summit still represents constructive progress by demonstrating that the world is is working together, he said. "There are no major areas where people are out on their own," he said.
At a press conference Monday leading up to the summit, several regional and country year 2000 coordinators offered journalists specific glimpses of compliance efforts across the globe that ranged from well-documented to vaguely desperate. As in the U.S., the most is known about big businesses and utilities, while smaller businesses and the general public remain wildcards.
The "regional" coordinators are designated as such by the International Y2K Cooperation Center established by the U.N.
Carlos R. Jarque, Mexico's coordinator, said his nation has identified the businesses at highest risk. Of 3.2 million businesses, only about 1 million have computers. Of those, 300,000 have equipment new enough to be presumed compliant. Of the 700,000 with older equipment, 165,000 have networks and are therefore presumed to be at the highest risk. Meanwhile, the government has spent $2 billion to fix problems.
Venezuela's coordinator, Hugo Castellanos, painted an equally diverse picture of year 2000 awareness in his country. The oil industry has spent $200 million, the banking system $500 million, the telecommunications system $100 million and other public services another $100 million.
In Australia, which regulates its economy closely and has instituted reporting rules for more than 1,000 publicly traded companies, year 2000 problems are under control, said Susan Page, chief general manager of the country's year 2000 Project Office. She handed out literature dated last month touting a high preparedness ranking from the Gartner Group Inc., a $21 billion (Australian) accounting of the cost of year 2000 remediation.
While awareness in those three nations is substantial at least at higher levels, the 29-nation region of Eastern Europe and Central Asia is struggling with a variety of year 2000 issues, said coordinator Mario Tagarinski of Bulgaria. Many nations in the region, such as former members of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, are in the throes of transitions and upheavals more fundamental than year 2000 problems. Tagarinski said the region needs help and elaborated only by saying, "It's a huge list." Later, when asked whether it was fair to say that problems in some areas of the region would be akin to meltdowns, he responded, "Yeah, maybe."
Sub-Saharan Africa, coordinated by Baba-Mustafa Marong of The Gambia, said countries in the region also need help with money and staff. It is, however, finding both through the World Bank and other lenders and organizations.
East Asian nations, on the other hand, have paid their own way and with six months to go probably won't find much utility in applying for loans now, said coordinator Amable Aguiluz of the Philippines.
Another international problem area is dealing with the public's many-faceted Y2K issues. Aguiluz said that one of his largest concerns is figuring out how to thwart groups that may try to take advantage of consumers. Police need to figure out how to combat scam artists and other groups, such as a religious group that Aguiluz said offered to take care of followers' savings if they lose faith in the banking system.
Public ignorance of year 2000 problems is widespread in Mexico, according to government surveys. Meanwhile, Castellanos acknowledged that the Venezuelan government is struggling with what to tell the public.
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