Feds' weather information could go dark
By Robert P. King
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 21, 2005
Do you want a seven-day weather forecast for your ZIP code? Or hour-by-hour predictions of the temperature, wind speed, humidity and chance of rain? Or weather data beamed to your cellphone?
That information is available for free from the National Weather Service.
But under a bill pending in the U.S. Senate, it might all disappear.
The bill, introduced last week by Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., would prohibit federal meteorologists from competing with companies such as AccuWeather and The Weather Channel, which offer their own forecasts through paid services and free ad-supported Web sites.
Supporters say the bill wouldn't hamper the weather service or the National Hurricane Center from alerting the public to hazards — in fact, it exempts forecasts meant to protect "life and property."
But critics say the bill's wording is so vague they can't tell exactly what it would ban.
"I believe I've paid for that data once. ... I don't want to have to pay for it again," said Scott Bradner, a technical consultant at Harvard University.
He says that as he reads the bill, a vast amount of federal weather data would be forced offline.
"The National Weather Service Web site would have to go away," Bradner said. "What would be permitted under this bill is not clear — it doesn't say. Even including hurricanes."
Nelson questions intention
The decision of what information to remove would be up to Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez — possibly followed, in the event of legal challenges, by a federal judge.
A spokesman for Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said the bill threatens to push the weather service back to a "pre-Internet era" — a questionable move in light of the four hurricanes that struck the state last year. Nelson serves on the Senate Commerce Committee, which has been assigned to consider the bill.
"The weather service proved so instrumental and popular and helpful in the wake of the hurricanes. How can you make an argument that we should pull it off the Net now?" said Nelson's spokesman, Dan McLaughlin. "What are you going to do, charge hurricane victims to go online, or give them a pop-up ad?"
But Barry Myers, AccuWeather's executive vice president, said the bill would improve public safety by making the weather service devote its efforts to hurricanes, tsunamis and other dangers, rather than duplicating products already available from the private sector.
"The National Weather Service has not focused on what its core mission should be, which is protecting other people's lives and property," said Myers, whose company is based in State College, Pa. Instead, he said, "It spends hundreds of millions of dollars a year, every day, producing forecasts of 'warm and sunny.'"
Santorum made similar arguments April 14 when introducing his bill. He also said expanded federal services threaten the livelihoods of private weather companies.
"It is not an easy prospect for a business to attract advertisers, subscribers or investors when the government is providing similar products and services for free," Santorum said.
AccuWeather has been an especially vocal critic of the weather service and its parent agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The company has accused the federal agencies of withholding data on hurricanes and other hazards, and failing to ensure that employees don't feed upcoming forecasts to favored investors in farming and energy markets.
Weather service expands data
The rivalry intensified last year, when NOAA shelved a 1991 policy that had barred the weather agency from offering services that private industry could provide.
Also last year, the weather service began offering much of its raw data on the Internet in an easily digestible format, allowing entrepreneurs and hobbyists to write simple programs to retrieve the information. At the same time, the weather service's own Web pages have become increasingly sophisticated.
Combined, the trends threaten AccuWeather's business of providing detailed weather reports based on an array of government and private data. AccuWeather's 15,000 customers include The Palm Beach Post
, which uses the company's hurricane forecast maps on its Web site, PalmBeachPost.com.
NOAA has taken no position on the bill. But Ed Johnson, the weather service's director of strategic planning and policy, said his agency is expanding its online offerings to serve the public.
"If someone claims that our core mission is just warning the public of hazardous conditions, that's really impossible unless we forecast the weather all the time," Johnson said. "You don't just plug in your clock when you want to know what time it is."
Myers argued that nearly all consumers get their weather information for free through commercial providers, including the news media, so there's little reason for the federal agency to duplicate their efforts.
"Do you really need that from the NOAA Web site?" he asked.
But some weather fans, such as Bradner, say they prefer the federal site's ad-free format.
Another supporter of the weather service's efforts, Tallahassee database analyst John Simpson, said the plethora of free data becoming available could eventually fuel a new industry of small and emerging companies that would repackage the information for public consumption. He said a similar explosion occurred in the 1990s, when corporations' federal securities filings became freely available on the Web.
Shutting off the information flow would stifle that innovation and solidify the major weather companies' hold on the market, Simpson said.
Santorum's bill also would require the weather service to provide "simultaneous and equal access" to its information.
That would prevent weather service employees from favoring some news outlets over others, which Santorum and Myers said has happened in some markets. But it also could end the common practice of giving one-on-one interviews to individual reporters who have questions about storms, droughts or other weather patterns.
"What we want is to make sure that whatever information is provided to one source is provided to all," Myers said.
But Johnson said it's importanst to answer reporters' questions so the public receives accurate information — especially when lives are at stake.
"We are not interested in turning off our telephones," Johnson said. "I would be concerned that that would actually be dangerous."