SMART Letter #44
MOVE AIR TRAFFIC CONTROL TO THE EDGE
August 15, 2000
SMART Letter #44 -- August 15, 2000
Copyright 2000 by David S. Isenberg
isen.com -- "natural monopolies RNT us"
firstname.lastname@example.org -- http://isen.com/ -- 1-888-isen-com
> Move Air Traffic Control to the Edge
> Quotes of Note: How Mobile Network Operators Avoid Stupidity
> Making the World Safer for "Dangerous Places"
> Smart Remarks from SMART People -- Barry Frankel
> Conferences on my Calendar, Copyright Notice, Administrivia
MOVE AIR TRAFFIC CONTROL TO THE EDGE: The days are long gone
when a controller hunched over a radar screen was the only
person who could know where all the airplanes were.
by David S. Isenberg
Air travel this summer has been like a visit to Hell for the
frequent flyer. The U.S. Air Traffic Control (ATC) system is
the bellows of the forge that keeps the noxious cauldron of
delays and cancellations bubbling.
Steve Forbes' recent rant that the Federal Aviation
Administration's ATC system is "outrageously ineffective" is
right on target. ("Enough Already!" Forbes, Aug. 7, 2000, p.
39.) But Steve's old-money, third-generation reflex, to
replace the FAA's dysfunctional government system with the
private business of air traffic control, is ill-considered.
There's a third way -- move ATC to the edge. As in
telecommunications so in air traffic control, new technology
has the potential to empower the end-user. Control of each
aircraft could return to the pilot's lap, where it belongs.
But first, let's try to imagine how Steve's private business
Let us consider whether an open, competitive ATC marketplace
would be practical. Would you fly the airline that used the
*cheapest* ATC system? Not me, no way. How about the airline
that used the *fastest* ATC company? I wouldn't fly that one
either -- I'd wonder what corners it was cutting. My choice
would be the ATC company that got me there the *safest*. Of
course these safety-oriented ATC companies would need to keep
their airplanes on the ground (or in the air) until all the
planes controlled by the other less-safe ATC companies were
out of the way. Might as well stay home. A competitive
marketplace for ATC just won't work.
In other words, Air Traffic Control as we know it today is a
'natural monopoly', which is, "by its technical nature a form
of service that is most efficiently provided without local
competition" ("Telephone, the First 100 Years", by John
Brooks, Harper & Row, 1975, p. 143).
In other words, a competitive business environment could make
ATC even more dysfunctional. A monopoly model is not the
answer either -- the monopolistic corporations I know would be
worthy competitors for today's FAA in the Dysfunctionality
Maybe Steve thinks privatization is the panacea. Prison
privatization isn't working, according to an article in the
very same issue of Forbes, which documents that private
Wackenhut guards regularly raped female prisoners, and
tortured and gassed juveniles. More tragically, the article's
bottom line is that better-trained guards cost more money, so
Wackenhut stock is taking a big hit. And "that's criminal,"
the article says. (See "Boys Will Be Boys", Forbes, ibid. p.
I can't comment on prison from personal experience. But I am
a private pilot, and I fly regularly through some of the most
complicated, most controlled airspace in the world. I've had
lots of radio chats with the skilled, dedicated men and women
who work as air traffic controllers. And I've had lots of
experience with the screwed-up system that both pilots and air
traffic control folks must put up with.
Natural monopolies derive from their "technical nature". In
telecommunications, new technologies are eroding the natural
monopoly of the telephone companies. These technologies have
made a Stupid Network possible; the Internet Protocol has put
substantial network control into the hands of end users by
making each network-specific "value-added" feature of each
network owner just another network-specific difference to
route around. In a similar way, the decentralizing forces of
new technologies could move ATC intelligence to the edge of
the ATC network. This is the basis of my "third proposal".
The Global Positioning System (GPS) works. GPS is the system
of satellite-sent timed pulses that tells me where my airplane
is in 3-D space with more accuracy than I could myself by
looking out of my plane's window at 500 feet on a clear day.
I can buy a hand-held GPS receiver for a hundred bucks.
That's a beginning.
Next, in a best-of-all-possible-worlds scenario, I'd amend the
Federal Aviation Regulations to require aircraft flying in
certain kinds of airspace to carry a GPS receiver attached to
a little digital transmitter that broadcasts an aircraft's
latitude, longitude and altitude every few seconds. This unit
also would have a digital radio to receive the position
signals of other aircraft around it. Then with some trivial
trigonometry that wouldn't tax a PC, an on-board navigation
system would compute which planes were coming near enough to
matter. It would plot the relative positions of these planes,
and perhaps even negotiate with the navigation computers on
the other planes to optimize the best course changes for
About seven years ago, back in the old days when I could still
read all the postings to rec.aviation every day, somebody
described a such a system based on the much less accurate
LORAN positioning system, used by oil-rig helicopters in the
Gulf of Mexico. This concept survives today -- in GPS-based
instrument procedures developed especially for helicopters by
the Helicopter Association International and the FAA.
Admittedly helicopters are special. They can fly as slowly as
they need to and even hover in one place. Nevertheless, the
early evidence is that the system works. Airplanes should be
In networks and in aircraft, physical redundancy is the only
sure-fire road to reliability. My little four-seat plane has
two redundant ignition systems, two redundant gas tanks, two
redundant radios, two redundant navigation systems and two
somewhat redundant sets of steering controls. Furthermore,
should one of the existing instruments fail, there are ways of
deriving the same information from other instruments. If the
electrical system fails, there is a second system of
pneumatically driven instruments. And so on.
The GPS-based system I describe could be slipped over the top
of the current ATC system. At first, the current system would
be the backup. There are other redundant mechanisms that
could be implemented to leave today's system behind. I will
not second-guess what might work here, but I do suggest --
strongly -- that many alternatives could be found if there
were a will to find (or invent) them. It is feasible to move
ATC to the edge. And if not now, when?
The airlines have made sure that the FAA is not ignoring the
new navigation technology or its potential impact on the ATC
process. The FAA's response is called "Free Flight" (see
http://www.fcc.gov/freeflight/). But the FAA, in the name of
Safety (and its handmaiden, Proven Technology), is moving in
To the FAA's credit, the last phase of Free Flight looks a lot
like the proposal I advance above. And the first phase of
Free Flight has already been implemented. This allows
airlines at cruising altitude to fly "direct" routes, rather
than slavishly fly from one radio beacon to the next. Indeed,
this has saved millions of gallons of fuel and many minutes of
In addition, the FAA has implemented a primitive high-cost
onboard system -- TCAS -- to help pilots avoid other planes in
their vicinity, but it doesn't work very well. A GPS-plus-
digital-radio system has the potential to work better, and
integrate with Free Flight more completely.
These bureaucratic baby steps do nothing to get the old broken
system out of the way. To err is human. But the current
phase of Free Flight does not contemplate taking air traffic
controllers out of the immediate loop. It does not address
the real bottleneck caused by the need for controllers to
converse with each aircraft over a crowded, noisy radio
channel. And it does not confront the fact that the days are
long gone when a ground-based controller hunched over a radar
screen was the only person who could tell where all the
Now I'm talking about commercial aviation here. I'm
sympathetic to general aviation pilots who don't need another
piece of required gear cluttering their 1946 open-cockpit
biplane. And I feel for pilots who save their pennies to rent
their flying club's putt-putt for an hour every other Saturday
-- they don't need anything to drive up their cost of flying.
On days with good visibility the sky (even the sky below 3000
feet) is a big place, and there is room for everybody.
We've seen the FAA jump lively when it feels the fire. It got
its Y2K act together in a remarkably short time -- indeed, no
planes fell out of the sky last New Year's Eve. The FAA could
advance Free Flight much, much faster if it felt the heat of
the airlines, the heat of businesses whose road warriors are
spending their summer in hellish airports, and the heat of the
outraged general public.
We know how incumbent businesses react to disruptive
technology -- they either ignore it or try to kill it. New
companies must carry the disruptive technology to market. The
FAA is the incumbent here, but business paradigms won't work.
If there's any democracy left in the United States, every
aggrieved party should insist that the FAA belly up to the new
technology, even if it means the end of the FAA as we know it.
QUOTES OF NOTE: How Mobile Network Operators Avoid Stupidity
[Erick Schonfield has written a very good, quite detailed
article on wireless Internet services in the inaugural issue
of eCompany magazine. In it, he explains how the cellular
companies are working hard to bottle up the Internet genie so
it doesn't escape to become the stupid Internet that the phone
companies can't extract value from anymore. I hope Erick does
the cable TV guys next. Some tidbits below: -- David I]
"The key is owning the customers by hosting information on
your servers and understanding how they are using that
information. If the carriers relinquish that information,
they become dumb pipes and are instantly commoditized --
and there is the potential that Wall Street will give them
a lower multiple."
Richard Silber, head of Andersen Consulting's wireless
practice, quoted in "He's Got the Whole Web In His Hands" by
Erick Schonfeld, eCompany, July 2000, p. 107.
"All the phone companies are insanely jealous of the value
created by ISPs and Web portals. . . . The mobile carriers
are determined not to let that happen again."
Paul Roche, McKinsey Consulting, quoted in "He's Got the Whole
Web In His Hands," ibid.
Making the World Safer for "Dangerous Places"
[In SMART Letter #41, I described Robert Young Pelton's TED
City presentation about his death-defying personal experiences
in some of the "world's most dangerous places" like Colombia
and Chechnya. Following up, in SMART Letter #43 I published a
parenthetical comment by a reporter to the effect that Robert
Young Pelton was a bullshitter. The reporter agreed to let me
publish this remark anonymously. Then I heard from Robert
Young Pelton himself, who was understandably "mystified by"
To be fair the anonymous reporter's comment came as an
entirely informal, spontaneous remark. I didn't ask my source
for "proof" that Pelton was a liar, and none was offered -- I
thought the remark was remarkable simply because it came from
a former mainstream reporter. (Pelton himself observes that
mainstream reporters often take a dim, skeptical view of his
work.) -- David I]
Pelton's email to me (edited for brevity and clarity) said:
"You quote a mysterious journalistic source [in SMART
Letter #43] to spread the impression that I am a
bullshitter, liar, truth stretcher and other derogatory
things. Obviously that person is not aware that I
videotape most of my trips these days and can also
provide a list of people who were with me during my
"I hope you can understand why I take accusations about
my veracity so personally. I don't need to risk my life
to make up stories. I can leave that to journalists
like your friend. I would be happy to refute any
accusations made by 'real' reporters.
"The comments of that reporter potentially serve to
negate my whole point: That people need to see things
with their own eyes and not rely on reporters to figure
things out for them.
"I personally would like to know where this reporter
formed his opinion that I was a bullshitter since I
have a simple way to deal with those people. I ask them
what proof they have. And, not suprisingly, they often
tell me that they heard their information second hand.
"If there is any doubt about anything I have done I
would be happy to provide you with witnesses, video
tape or other forms of proof. If your readers would
like to contact me regarding these allegations, I'm at
Smart Remarks from SMART People
From Barry Frankel (email@example.com):
"It just hit me like a ton of bricks. Your key point is
that AT&T failed because the intelligence wasn't at the
edge. Xerox copying and PC printers exploded in use
because publishing could now be done at the edge and not
in some central printing plant."
"Same thing with Napster. Moving music storage and
distribution from a massive production plant to millions
of little points at the edge destroys companies that live
off capital-intensive centralized facilities.
"The thought process can be extended into explaining the
break-up of the USSR in to multiple countries. Are we
heading into a world where small is beautiful? "
[I'm glad the bricks made contact, Barry. There are still
LOTS of people who don't get it. -- David I]
CONFERENCES ON MY CALENDAR
September 13-15, 2000. Lake Tahoe CA. TELECOSM. Featuring
George Gilder, and a cast of geniuses, troublemakers, and
people who got rich by listening to George. The preliminary
program *doesn't* have Clay Christensen this year, but it does
feature MetroMedia Fiber Systems' founder (and SMART Person)
Steve Garofalo, TeraBeam founder (and SMART Person) Greg
Amadon, and Global Crossing non-founder and non-SMART-List-
subscriber Leo Hindery. (By the way, I called up George when
I read his words that "Leo totally gets it." George told me
that Leo's on a steep learning curve. I hope Leo knows the
difference between content and conduit by September. Here's
our chance to get it straight from the Hindery's mouth. We
can also ask Steve Forbes about air traffic control. If you
have not tried to register, whatcha waiting for?
November 5-9, 2000. Rose Hall, Jamaica. Porter Stansberry's
Pirate Investor's Ball, featuring Eric Raymond, Tom Petzinger,
Porter's impressive research director David Lashmet, and yours
truly. Porter is a big-picture guy, a cross between George
Gilder and Tony Robbins, with a nose for leading edge values
in infotech and biotech. Contact Andrea Shaw,
November 13-15, 2000. Hong Kong. Jeff Pulver's VON Asia.
VON stands for Voice on the 'Net. It's the premiere Internet
Telephony show in the U.S. and Europe; this is the first Asian
VON. I'll be doing a panel, subject TBD. (I've suggested to
Jeff that it be called XON with X unknown.) For more, see
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Copyright 2000 by David S. Isenberg
firstname.lastname@example.org -- http://www.isen.com/ -- 1-888-isen-com
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-- The brains behind the Stupid Network --