Charging for Online Charts and Data: A Suggestion for FAA AeroNav Products

FAA appears to have abandoned its plan to charge for online charts and data. A Charting Notice published February 11, 2016 says that “FAA is now making its digital products available for free approximately 20 days prior to their effective dates.”

The general aviation community is abuzz with the news that FAA AeroNav Products will change how it distributes electronic aeronautical charts and data and raise prices, probably substantially, for pilots and developers of applications, such as ForeFlight and WingX. The news was announced in November and discussed with the industry at a meeting on December 13 (for background and accounts of the meeting, which was closed to the public and the media, see, for example, AVweb, Hilton Software, SkyVector.com, Flying magazine, and AOPA). In brief, FAA AeroNav products wants to close a budget gap caused by declining sales of paper charts as pilots switch to electronic versions, and it hopes to restrict access to downloadable versions of its charts to authorized users and developers, who will pay fees (as yet unspecified) to get the data.

According to the accounts of attendees noted above, FAA AeroNav floated several ideas at the December meeting. The folks who run AeroNav seem to want to impose per-user charges on developers, and they also seem intent on requiring app developers to copyright the data they get from the FAA. As a government agency, FAA can’t copyright its products directly. FAA says it wants developers to copyright data to assure the accuracy and currency of the information.

In floating various proposals, no one seems so far to have considered the business model long in place at FAA’s sister agency, NOAA, which publishes both printed and digital charts and data for marine navigation. According to its website, NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey offers many types of charts and data, including:

Anyone can download free raster charts and ENCs from the NOAA website, which also provides links to free chart viewers. NOAA even offers its own free viewer for reviewing charts online, and the agency provides detailed information about how to obtain and use free electronic charts and data. NOAA also partners with vendors who provide print-on-demand paper charts.

For example:

NOAA’s entire suite of over 1,000 nautical charts is available for free as Raster Navigational Charts in the BSB format. Commercial electronic charting software is required to use them. Weekly digital upates are also available.

And:

NOAA ENC® cells are available for free download. These are electronic vector data sets in the international S-57 standard.   Updates are also available.  Commercial software is required to view ENCs and to apply updates.

In addition, NOAA provides detailed instructions about how to become a redistributor of its charts and data (for example, see the NOAA RNC®  Distributorship Agreement [PDF]).

Here’s what NOAA says specifically about ENCs (that is, data that can be processed to produce virtual charts):

NOAA ENCs are available as free downloads from the Internet. Mariners who wish to download NOAA ENCs directly and use the data to fuel ECDIS or ECS may do so.

In October 2005, NOAA created a new mechanism for distributing NOAA ENCs. NOAA announced certification requirements with standards for applicants who want to redistribute NOAA ENCs as official data. Two types of certification are offered. The first type, Certified NOAA ENC Distributor (CED), covers NOAA ENC downloading, exact copying, and redistribution of those copies. The second type, Certified NOAA ENC Value Added Distributor (CEVAD), permits reformatting official NOAA ENCs into a System Electronic Navigational Chart (SENC) using type-approved software, and distribution of that SENC. NOAA intends by this action to assure that, though redistributed, quality official NOAA ENC data is offered to the public in support of safe navigation on U.S. waters.

The free charts meet the requirements for use on private vessels. Operators of commercial and large vessels must use approved charts and data, and NOAA offers detailed descriptions of those requirements, for vendors and end-users, on its website. NOAA published its guidelines and estimated costs in the Federal Register on September 6, 2005 (Docket No: 040608174–5098–03). That notice explains that:

The purpose of this rule is to provide the procedures and requirements necessary for an entity to be certified as ‘‘Certified NOAA ENC Distributor’’ or ‘‘Certified NOAA ENC Value Added Distributor.’’ This certification process is voluntary. Only those applicants who wish to redistribute NOAA ENC data as official Federal data with the phrase ‘‘Certified NOAA ENC Distributor’’ or ‘‘Certified NOAA ENC Value Added Distributor’’ on products and marketing.

The explanation also addresses several key concerns that FAA AeroNav uses in its arguments for changing its policies. For example:

NOAA appreciates that a nation-wide supply of electronic charts for ECS is important and so in union with these requirements, NOAA offers another proposed rule for Quality Assurance and Certification Program for NOAA Hydrographic Products, (69 FR 61172, Oct. 15, 2004). That program supports companies in making and selling electronic charts into the non-regulated market [i.e., private boaters], which is two orders of magnitude larger than the regulated market and provides additional commercial opportunities for private companies while preserving the safety of navigation. The total estimated economic impact to small entities associated with startup costs, software and equipment upgrades, the application process, reporting, recordkeeping, and compliance requirements is not expected to amount to sums greater than $5,228 per entity annually.

I’m not a mariner, but it seems that NOAA has kept pace with the technology that has made electronic charts and free distribution of both the charts and data so attractive to the users that it serves. The mystery is why FAA can’t adopt a similar approach.

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5 Responses to Charging for Online Charts and Data: A Suggestion for FAA AeroNav Products

  1. Lou says:

    I suspect that it’s because NOAA tends to be more on the bleeding edge of technology to begin with. I mean, they have access to supercomputers and such via their subsidiary the National Weather Service as well as other forms of electronic communications.

    • bruceair says:

      I’m sure that NOAA is ahead of the technology curve with respect to FAA. But the issue here is the business model, and I don’t understand why FAA (and others) seem to have ignored the approach that NOAA has taken. According to accounts of the meeting in December, FAA AeroNav has only vague ideas about how proceed, and those ideas are based on back-of-the-envelope calculations and finger-in-the-wind guesses about number of users, etc. If I’m reading the NOAA documents correctly, that agency has worked out a process and business model that has served everyone well since 2005, and that process also seems to address FAA’s stated concerns about preserving accuracy without doing an end-run around copyright.

  2. nelsonminar says:

    Great analysis, I hope AeroNav, AOPA, etc consider the NOAA model. I particularly like the distinction between levels of chart use. I don’t know if the distinction between private boaters and commercial boaters carries over directly to aviation, although maybe it’d be a simple as Part 91 vs Part 135. But I like how the NOAA model acknowledges useful non-commercial uses of the data.

    Most of the uses of AeroNav data I care about would shut down entirely if they had to pay any per-user fee. Sites like vfrmap.com, skyvector.com, and runwayfinder.com don’t even have a way to identify users, much less charge them. But they could possibly operate with data provided under some restrictions such as a clear notice “not for navigation” or the like.

    • Lou says:

      Heck, I agree with having some sort of free options, a la what NOAA does. I really do like the way NOAA handles things from what I understand in the original post (and yeah, I should’ve mentioned during my reply about better handling of tech on NOAA’s case). Even though I’ve just a wanna-be pilot right now (saving up to go for a PPL and going on from there), I’ve used many of the free charting services for flight simulator usage and I’d miss them if they disappeared.

  3. Pingback: FAA Digital Products Available for Free | BruceAir, LLC (bruceair.com)

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