All we have to fear is fear itself, says ASB chief

ASB Bank isn't too worried about Y2K any more - its big concern is public panic. 'We've been Y2K-ready since the end of last year. Our biggest fear isn't the failure of our systems, it's the public's perception and how they act on the day itself,' says ASB Bank CEO Ralph Norris. Norris says ASB found 21,256 date dependencies in its applications.

ASB Bank isn't too worried about Y2K any more — its big concern is public panic.

"We've been Y2K-ready since the end of last year. Our biggest fear isn't the failure of our systems, it's the public's perception and how they act on the day itself," says ASB Bank CEO Ralph Norris.

Norris was one of the speakers at the Auckland City Council forum on Y2K, held at the Aotea Centre last week. Attendees of the conference were treated to something unusual in Y2K circles: real facts. Presentations from the various core infrastructure industries, banking, electricity, telecommunication, air travel and local bodies, contained breakdowns of what has been done to prevent Y2K catastrophe from striking New Zealand in the first hours of January 1. They also outlined contingency plans being enacted, even though they are confident that there will be few problems on the night itself.

"We found 21,256 date dependencies in our applications," says Norris. He outlined the steps the bank had taken to stamp out Y2K, and how the banks were working together within the Banking Association to ensure interconnectivity didn't create new problems. In testing, however, the banks discovered two extra instances of Y2K in addition to the bugs they'd discovered internally and another occurrence when the banks tested connections to Treasury. "If we had just left it at testing our own systems, we still wouldn't have coped with Y2K."

Michael Hunt, who works for the Civil Aviation Authority, spoke on behalf of the aviation industry. He was adamant that there would be no risk to public safety because of Y2K. "Aeroplanes will not cease to function because of the millennium bug. Air will still pass over the wing and provide lift in the same way it always has," he declared.

Of all the industries, aviation seems to be most advanced with contingency planning, perhaps because it has such a high internal level of safety awareness.

"We use our contingency plans on a daily basis," says Hunt, who points to Wellington International Airport as a good example. "Wellington is frequently closed by weather conditions and we cope with that issue as it arises." CAA has a variety of double-redundant systems in place to cope with loss of telecommunications, electricity and the like.

Aviation is also in the interesting position of having Y2K hit them at 1pm on January 1.

"The industry runs worldwide on a global time. We're lucky, our rollover occurs in the middle of the afternoon in summer on a Saturday. The east coast of the US will roll over at 7pm on a wintry Friday night."

Telecommunications and electricity were the two presentations most eagerly awaited by most of the delegates. Neither industry has been exactly forthcoming with information on their Y2K plans, but both are fundamental to nearly everybody's contingency planning, if not to their actual business as well.

Brett Annan, Telecom's Y2K manager, plans to use September 9, 1999 as a test bed for the Y2K rollover.

"We've been running tests consistently, taking down exchanges and rolling the date forward, aging we call it, and seeing how they cope."

Testing will continue at Telecom, with major trials being conducted in May, August and November. Telecom is reliant on third parties for many of its products, the phone handsets, for example, and is still working through its plan to evaluate third-party phones. Annan says managers should take vendor assurances with a grain of salt, if they accept them at all.

"Some of our suppliers have changed their tune from last year to this, which is fairly alarming."

The electricity industry has undergone massive reforms in the last year, with many customers now unsure as to which company does what in the sector. Trans-power is responsible for getting electricity from the 50 or so generators around the country to the line companies who then sell it to the retail arms who sell it to the consumers. Robert Scott, Trans-power's Y2K project director, says one of their strengths is that the industry is relatively uncomplicated compared with places like Europe or the US. "Because we've had one company, ECNZ, controlling the industry for so long we've got similar equipment throughout the country. We don't have that problem of everyone using different systems."

Scott says Transpower has looked at over half a million lines of code, found 64,100 date dependencies and from that discovered 310 date issues. The fact that they fixed 311 problems is due to the discovery of a non-Y2K bug during the testing.

As for contingency planning, Scott says Transpower is all too aware of the burden the electricity industry carries.

"We have booked accommodation that we hope we'll never need. We have nine helicopters booked on standby for two days. We've bought a number of Iridium satellite phones in case Telecom falls over and we will have all our key stations staffed during the rollover."

Scott says he expects less trouble in New Zealand than in other countries because it's the middle of summer and electricity usage will be at a minimum.

"We generally have 50% spare capacity over the summer months in New Zealand." He says because we generate our electricity internally, and don't rely on other countries or on complex systems like nuclear power stations, our troubles should be relatively few and far between.

The forum was attended by over 100 people from the Auckland city area.

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