Bill Proposes Ending Free Weather Data

The Internet has made weather data more freely accessible to those who want it. Thanks to new policies instituted by the National Weather Service, users can obtain free access to such things as live radar, weather forecasts, and even receive weather on their cell phones. However, a bill introduced last week by Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA) may end all that.

"NOAA's actions threaten the continued success of the commercial weather industry," Santorum said in a Senate session last week. "It's not an easy prospect for a business to attract advertisers, subscribers, or investors when the government is providing similar products and services for free."

Initial reactions to the legislation have been mixed. Supporters say that the bill will let the National Weather Service focus on its core mission - forecasts and warnings. However, some have criticized the bill as a pander to the commercial weather industry.

Others warn that the bill is unclear as to exactly what would be allowed and what would not, possibly opening the door to abuses of the law.

Larry Cosgrove, former television meteorologist and publisher of the WEATHERAmerica Newsletter, says that the law aims to restrict what the weather service can do. "In essence, [the law is] setting a line in the sand as to what NOAA (the weather services’ parent agency) can and cannot do, so as to not to interfere with private forecast services."

Counted among the bill's supporters are private weather firms such as AccuWeather, which claim the NWS does not ensure the integrity of its data and plays favorites.

However, AccuWeather has a financial interest in seeing the weather service's Internet reach shrink. Up until the end of the 1990s it was the only way to receive real-time weather online data such as radars, for which it charged a fee for access. Some independent meteorologists like Cosgrove are against a return to this policy.

Online data access is seen by the weather service as an extension of its duty to serve the public. Last year, it eliminated a 13-year-old policy that prevented it from offering services that the private sector provided. Thus, new products including mobile weather services and raw weather data appeared, allowing anyone with the right software to decode and use it for free, making a pay service unnecessary to most.

Dr. Joel Myers, AccuWeather's president, and Barry Myers, the company's vice president, have argued in public that the actions of the National Weather Service are hurting their business.

Critics of the plan, however, point to the fact that AccuWeather, the nation's largest private weather firm, is located in Senator Santorum's home state of Pennsylvania.

Also, BetaNews has learned that throughout 2003 and 2004, both Joel and Barry Myers have donated nearly $2,750 to Santorum's 2006 re-election efforts. Public records also showed that since 1999, the Senator received nearly $5,000 in contributions from AccuWeather executives, raising questions of whether the company attempted to court favor with the Senator through campaign contributions.

AccuWeather did not respond to requests for comment on the situation.

Regardless of the origins of the legislation, at least one official with the National Weather Service called the bill dangerous. If the weather service was required to ensure everyone has "simultaneous and equal access" to its information, it could bar the weather service from talking to the press, something it has done at no cost.

"We are not interested in turning off our telephones," Ed Johnson, the NWS policy director, told the Palm Beach Post. "I would be concerned that that would actually be dangerous."

Cosgrove adds that any kind of curtailment of what the National Weather Service does is wrong. "An apt analogy would be this: the National Weather Service should be much like the PBS in the broadcast industry, a reliable alternative that sometimes works with the commercial stations and networks, but does not attempt to profit from its activities."

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