Friday, April 22

If It Ain't Broke, Don't Fix It

Spring is a time of excitement in Tornado Alley.

Here in the Great Plains the weather can turn from soft and sweet to a vicious, howling swirl of destruction in the blink of sunshine. If there's one thing mid-Westerners in Kansas, the Dakotas, Missouri and Oklahoma depend on from May through September, it's the National Weather Service.

The National Weather Service is a free weather service that has studied weather phenomena since 1877. Affectionately known as NOAA, this is the service that predicts and follows hurricanes along the coasts and snowstorms in the High Plains and Rocky Mountains. We who live in the more exciting weather areas are quite familiar with the NOAA website. And all that information is free from the National Weather Service.

But Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., has introduced a bill (S 786)which would keep the service from competing with commercial companies offering their forecasts through paid services and free ad-supported Web sites. Read the full text of the bill HERE.

The text of that part of the bill says:
COMPETITION WITH PRIVATE SECTOR- The Secretary of Commerce shall not provide, or assist other entities in providing, a product or service (other than a product or service described in subsection (a)(1)) that is or could be provided by the private sector unless--

(1) the Secretary determines that the private sector is unwilling or unable to provide such product or service ; or

(2) the United States Government is obligated to provide such product or service under international aviation agreements to provide meteorological services and exchange meteorological information.

The people who are pushing this don't live in danger areas like Florida or Oklahoma. They obviously have no idea how fast a sublime day can change to terror.

A spokesman for Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., objects stenuously, saying the bill threatens to send the weather service back to the "pre-Internet era," understandable when you remember the weather devastation Florida suffered last Fall. Sen. 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?" Sen. Nelson's spokesman said in an interview.

A spokesman from one of the commercial services who stand to profit by closing down the service's Internet presence, Barry Myers, AccuWeather's executive vice president, said the bill would make the weather service devote more effort to disastrous weather

"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.'"

The Palm Beach Post says, "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.

It seems NOAA has brought the storm down on itself. Last year it rejected a 1991 policy that barred the weather agency from offering services in competition with commercial services. At the same time, NOAA began to offer its raw data on a much improved website on the web which allowed entrepreneurs and hobbyists to write simple programs to retrieve the information.

These actions threaten AccuWeather's business. It provides detailed weather reports based on an array of government and private data to 15,000 customers.

NOAA has not taken a public position on the bill but a spokesman did say they are expanding the services on their web site. NOAA has an audience who prefer the ad-free format of the Federal site.

"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.

Shutting off the information flow would stifle that innovation and solidify the major weather companies' hold on the market."

The bill also requires the weather service to provide equal access to all, which would keep some weather service employees from favoring a news service over another.

Santorum's bill also would require the weather service to provide "simultaneous and equal access" to its information. That could end the practice of giving one-on-one interviews to individual reporters about storms, droughts or other weather patterns.

The National Weather Service is one government agency that has done a superb job since 1877. Now, as it moves into the 21st Century with better services for the public, Sen. Santorum seeks to strike it down.

With all the problems that truly need attention and support, Sen.Santorum's attack on the service is ill-sdvised and reeks of political hackism. It looks like AccuWeather, like a spoiled child, went running to Papa at the first sign of true marketplace competition. Let's just hope the Senate can see through it!

1 comment:

Craig said...

Good post with good points.

I only interject this. In this age of government overspending, it would be nice Congress limit more of it's services. I do agree with AccuWeather in one regard, the NOAA should probably be used strictly for severe weather.

They could do this quite easily by making serious reports of weather patterns of changes absolutely free to keep people informed. But then have a pay service for those who simply like up-to-the-minute weather.

Living in Indiana with equally bad weather, I understand the importance of good detection and warning, but the government does not need to be in the business of undercutting our capitalist society.

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