Santorum: Keep NWS out of data distribution

Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) has introduced a bill that would bar the National Weather Service from competing with the commercial weather industry.

This law would reinstate a 1991 policy that said NWS would not distribute products or services that could be provided by the private sector. This includes specialized forecasts targeting agribusiness, utility companies, boating interests and business needs. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which oversees the weather agency, rescinded the non-competition provision in December, upsetting the commercial industry.

Backers of the bill contend that NWS spends too much money mimicking the private sector and sometimes withholds critical information, such as real-time snowfall accumulation reports and hurricane reconnaissance reports.

Santorum objected to NOAA's policy change in December.

"This decision by NOAA to repeal the non-competition and non-duplication policy detracts from NWS' core missions of maintaining a modern and effective meteorological infrastructure, collecting comprehensive observational data, and issuing warnings and forecasts of severe weather that imperil life and property," Santorum said after recommending the new legislation earlier this month.

Santorum introduced the National Weather Services Duties Act of 2005 bill earlier this month. It was referred to the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.

The bill's language would define the weather service's duties as "the preparation and issuance of severe weather forecasts and warnings designed for the protection of life and property of the general public."

Businesses that provide weather information online, such as AccuWeather, would likely benefit from the measure, which says that the weather agency should distribute its information through commercial providers in real-time and "in a manner that ensures that all members of the public have the opportunity for simultaneous and equal access to such data, information, guidance, forecasts and warnings."

An AccuWeather executive spoke in favor of restoring the 1991 policy. That regulation led to an explosion of weather-related commercial offerings such as Accuweather.com, said Barry Lee Myers, executive vice president of AccuWeather.

Commercial entities, such as utility companies, should pay for the services of other industries, Myers said. "If they need special weather information, why do they get it for free?" he said.

The bill does not specifically address the issue of information posted to the weather agency's Web site, said Christine Shott, a spokeswoman for Santorum.

Concerns about competition from the National Weather Service have nothing to do with the information being available online, but rather with the idea of issuing the data directly to parties who request it. "We have no objection whatsoever to [National Weather Service] information going on the Internet," Myers said.

Some observers suggest that Santorum should have proposed a policy, rather than a set-in-stone statute, since technology-related markets, like the weather industry, are evolving so rapidly. "What Sen. Santorum should do is have a public hearing and grill the [the Secretary of Commerce] on why [the department] changed the policy in December," said Bruce McConnell, president of consulting firm McConnell International.

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