SMART Letter #44
August 15, 2000

!@#$%^&*()!@#$%^&*()!@#$%^&*()!@#$%^&*()!@#$%^&*()!@#$%^&*() ------------------------------------------------------------ SMART Letter #44 -- August 15, 2000 Copyright 2000 by David S. Isenberg -- "natural monopolies RNT us" -- -- 1-888-isen-com ------------------------------------------------------------ !@#$%^&*()!@#$%^&*()!@#$%^&*()!@#$%^&*()!@#$%^&*()!@#$%^&*() CONTENTS > 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 would work. 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 Olympics. 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. 70.) 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 everybody. 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 next. 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 But the FAA, in the name of Safety (and its handmaiden, Proven Technology), is moving in bureaucratic time. 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 flying time. 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 airplanes were. 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" this characterization. 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 travels. "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 ( "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,, 410-223-2648. 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 ------- COPYRIGHT NOTICE: Redistribution of this document, or any part of it, is permitted for non-commercial purposes, provided that the two lines below are reproduced with it: Copyright 2000 by David S. Isenberg -- -- 1-888-isen-com ------- [to subscribe to the SMART Letter, please send a brief, PERSONAL statement to (put "SMART" in the Subject field) saying who you are, what you do, maybe who you work for, maybe how you see your work connecting to mine, and why you are interested in joining the SMART List.] [to unsubscribe to the SMART List, send a brief unsubscribe message to] [for past SMART Letters, see] [Policy on reader contributions: Write to me. I won't quote you without your explicitly stated permission. If you're writing to me for inclusion in the SMART Letter, *please* say so. I'll probably edit your writing for brevity and clarity. If you ask for anonymity, you'll get it. ] ** David S. Isenberg, inc. 888-isen-com 908-654-0772 ** -- The brains behind the Stupid Network -- **