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Y2K-esque Glitch Disrupts NYC Wireless Network

Ha ha welcome to your belated digital-age nightmare.
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Ha ha welcome to your belated digital-age nightmare. limonada/Flickr

Nothing to see here, just a city-wide wireless network that streamlines not only emergency response, but also the flow of traffic, and has apparently been down since Saturday without any of us knowing it!

Ha ha what did you just say though?

According to the NY Post, the New York City Wireless Network—NYCWiN, installed in 2009 for $500 million—that enables communication via voice, video, and data tech between city agencies has very recently been disrupted by a problem akin to the infamous Y2K 'Millennium bug." This should concern you because NYCWiN does important things, included but not limited to: Regulating timers on stop lights, and telling the Department of Transportation whether or not they work; powering the NYPD's license plate readers; allowing the FDNY and EMTs to send Patient Care Reports ahead to hospitals from the scene of the accident; ensuring that city payroll operates on schedule; and controlling DOT traffic cameras.

In short, it imposes a degree of order on already chaotic situations, at least when it is working, which it hasn't been in days.

The reason we find ourselves without our wireless network: Global Positioning System rollover, "a cousin to the dreaded Y2K bug," according to the NY Times, and an event that occurs every 1,024 weeks, or ~20 years, so you'd think the city would have prepared for it. Indeed, in April 2018, the Department of Homeland Security issued a warning that on April 6th, 2019, the GPS would reset its time-keeping capabilities. At that time, the DHS encouraged affected government agencies to start taking precautions.

As a result of the rollover, 38 of police license plate readers—which aid the NYPD not only in investigating car crimes, but also in counterterrorism maneuvers—are offline, according to the Times, obligating the department to send car-mounted readers to the affected areas. In a statement to Gothamist, an NYPD spokesperson emphasized that the department's systems "are not experiencing any issues."

"NYCWiN supports only a limited number of NYPD applications," which does include some fixed license plate readers, Sergeant Jessica McRorie said. Still, she added, "The NYPD always maintains contingency plans to prevent any single point of failure, and since the outage occurred over the weekend, the NYPD has deployed mobile LPR readers to targeted locations across the city to ensure continued service to the public. The NYPD has not experienced disruption to operations, investigations or services during the outage, and continues to monitor the situation closely and collaborate with partner city agencies."

Which is to say, you're in safe hands! Allegedly! At least insofar as the NYPD is involved; who knows about the DOT, which has to deal with the over 12,000 traffic control signals that went offline at intersections citywide, according to the Times. These signals "centrally monitor and wirelessly program traffic patterns during rush hours, special events, and emergencies" around the clock, and while nothing has gone off the rails—yet—the fear, apparently, is that individual signals will fall out of sync, creating vehicular pandemonium. Or so an anonymous city source who was "not authorized" to talk about the outage suggested to the Times.

And what about that whole communications SNAFU w/r/t hospitals and EMS? "This information is incorrect," an FDNY spokesperson said in a statement. "We are not having an issue transmitting patient information wirelessly to hospital emergency departments."

Gothamist contacted the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications to ask when it expects NYCWiN will be restored, and what's being done to patch the holes in the interim. In response, DOITT communications director Stephanie Raphael said:

Elements of our private wireless network have been disrupted by a worldwide GPS system update. We're working overtime to update the network and bring all of it back online. No critical public safety systems are affected by this brief software installation period, and we've taken several steps to make up for the disruption to the few isolated tools affected.

And on the plus side, Gothamist.com remains unaffected. Not sure about any other websites, which may or may not be spreading Y2K-esque viruses even if they are still functioning. Safer to park it right here.

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