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The $45 million bug solution

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Time to hire an exterminator to rid Utah's colleges and universities of bug problems. It won't be cheap. The estimate to take care of this particular insidious pest is $45 million. But a failure to do so would have disastrous consequences.

We refer to the millennium bug - commonly known as the Y2K problem. It infects computers and could bring them to a standstill unless eradicated. Colleges, of course, are not the only institutions facing the problem, which becomes a reality at the strike of midnight heralding the year 2000. Those systems not cured will throw a virtual computer fit and either cease to function or malfunction. Neither alternative is acceptable whether in a classroom, on an airplane or in an elevator.The Legislature needs to face reality and allocate the funds to take care of the problem. Lawmakers should have done so last year, but they turned down a request by Utah's higher system of education for $13 million to start working on the problem.

A repeat performance this year will turn a problem into a crisis. Quite simply, the state can pay now or it can pay later. To pay now is almost certain to be cheaper. It would definitely be less disruptive.

After a period of extensive evaluation, the respective institutions estimate up to 50 percent of their personal computer networks will crash if flaws aren't corrected next year. In addition, so-called "embedded chips," which control heating and security systems, also need to be debugged.

Far better to allocate $45 million now to ensure higher ed's estimated 30,000 PCs are bugproof than to put students and faculty in a quandary and possibly out of school in 2000.

The problem is not fantasy. Some have overreached and given it apocalyptic status, but it's serious enough that Utah Sen. Bob Bennett is heading a Senate task force to deal with it.

Nationally, estimates to fix the problem range as high as $277 billion. Bennett's task force wisely is targeting areas that are vital to keeping the country running, such as telecommunications, transportation, power grids, banking systems, manufacturing and government services like IRS refunds and welfare checks.

To keep colleges and universities operating - around the nation as well as in Utah - the various computer systems and networks need to be properly functioning.

The time for delay is gone. The 1999 Legislature needs to provide the $45 million needed to keep Utah's colleges and universities bug-free.