Intelsat spent three years trying to dispel its Y2K nightmare. Any problem with the date rollover could threaten the telephone, broadcast and Internet services Intelsat's 17 satellites provide to 200 countries. And the satellites orbit 22,000 miles above the equator--not the sort of fleet that can be easily hauled in for servicing.
So the global telecommunications company embarked on a $25 million quest to make sure that its birds and nerds would still be humming into the new year, working through 16 million lines of computer code and testing 1,400 pieces of equipment.
At 5:30 Friday morning, in two futuristic control rooms on Connecticut Avenue, technicians monitored the operations of the satellites and the electronic traffic buzzing through the international network. And the team that guided the gargantuan project watched nervously as . . .
Nothing much happened.
And they were elated. The Y2K fizzle is the finale that showed the protective power of planning.
"We hope all the people here are extremely bored," said Ramu Potarazu, who headed the company's efforts.
The satellites themselves weren't expected to have Y2K problems because their internal computers pay more attention to the position of the sun than to the date. But with such complex pieces of equipment, no one could be sure. And there was the massive complex of computers at the Connecticut Avenue headquarters and more than 5,000 ground antennas and ground stations around the world.
Since Intelsat sells communications services to more than 200 countries, the global satellite consortium provides a unique window on Y2K's sweep across the globe. Federal officials and international telecommunications agencies watched the company closely.
Intelsat's monitoring effort focused most closely on 130 ground stations. All eyes watched an enormous video map of the world that showed the international date line creeping across each time zone.
The easternmost stations began reporting when their midnight arrived by sending faxed status reports. A worker at the ground station in Tonga, which gerrymandered daylight saving time to gain millennial bragging rights, had the first ground station to check in, at 5:36 a.m. EST. The sender of the fax, Saia Moala, checked the box marked "No Issues," a sign that all systems were operating without a glitch, and scrawled "Happy New Year!" across the top of the page.
Warkworth, New Zealand, hit midnight at 6 a.m. EST and sent in its report at 6:41: "No Issues." The dot marking its place on the map went from yellow to green. Sydney, 8:56. No issues. The first of Intelsat's half-dozen facilities that help track and control the satellites--in Perth, Australia, and Beijing--reported no Y2K-related problems. By midafternoon, the company had heard from dozens of sites and had yet to get a report of a failure.
The remaining nail-biting was focused on one more deadline: the stroke of midnight, Greenwich Mean Time, at 7 p.m. EST. The Intelsat network, like many international operations, is tuned to GMT. But by 7:30, it was clear that the company had passed even that test.
"It's a relief," said Conny Kullman, Intelsat's chief executive. "Even if you prepare in the best possible way, there's so much software and computers out there in your network you can never be 100 percent sure . . . we sailed through it." And as he spoke, the line of green dots steadily replaced the yellow from right to left.