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4.30.2005

Weather information to go in the dark?

Found this article from the blog Weather Trends and Technology.

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."

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. The Palm Beach Post has the complete article here.