Landsat data to remain free

July 13th, 2019, Published in Articles: PositionIT

The US National Geospatial Advisory Committee Landsat Advisory Group has determined that the costs and legalities of changing from a free model to a cost-recovery model will not yield a net profit, and will negatively affect the US commercial remote sensing satellite and value-added industries. They note that “the annual societal benefit of Landsat data to US users in 2011 was estimated at approximately US$1,8-billion, which is two times greater than the cost of building and launching Landsat 8” with much of that value coming from the 2008 open data policy announcement. Instead, it recommended further research into charging a fee for value added services, and more importantly, to look at how the costs of building and launching Landsat sensors could be reduced, rather than focusing on cost sharing of operations.

Landsat scenes downloaded since the open data policy announcement.

In early 2017, the US Department of the Interior requested that US Geological Survey (USGS) consider possibilities for fee recovery for Landsat data. Accordingly, USGS asked the Landsat Advisory Group (LAG), a subcommittee of the National Geospatial Advisory Committee, to consider of the plausibility of fee recovery for Landsat data. In August of 2018, the USGS modified the request for the LAG to consider a range of possible Landsat data cost sharing models that may include, but are not limited to:

  • resource leveraging for data processing, management, and distribution
  • resource leveraging for satellite ground mission development and operations
  • various forms of fee recovery models for different market sectors

The advisory group published their findings about the viability of several different Landsat cost sharing alternatives, as well as identifying a potentially more fruitful approach to reducing the overall cost of Landsat missions through the use of emerging and increasingly proven technologies.

Their report considers two types of fee recovery alternatives:

  • Charging fees for Landsat data with the characteristics of Landsat 8 and 9
  • Charging fees for “enhanced” Landsat data such as improved spatial or spectral resolution over Landsat 8 and 9, or tailored image-collection requests

In evaluating the first option, the LAG believes that charging a fee for Landsat data will generate little net revenue, adding that the net revenue would potentially be less than the government costs incurred to implement the fee. Charging a fee for Landsat data, the advisory group believes, will result in negative economic impacts to the US commercial remote sensing satellite and value-added industries. The group also found that given existing statutory and regulatory constraints, the Federal Government could not readily charge for Landsat data without substantive changes in both law and regulations. The revenue obtained for charging a fee for Landsat data would therefore not be worth the economic, legal, societal or political costs that would be incurred, particularly given the measures that would need to be required to change applicable law and regulation or to revoke internationally lauded and followed data policy. In light of this, the LAG recommends that the Department of the Interior not implement any fees for Landsat data with the characteristics of Landsat 8 and 9.

Evaluating the second fee recovery option –  charging for enhanced Landsat data – the LAG believes that there may be an opportunity to generate revenue by selling “enhanced” imagery products and tailored tasking options from sensors onboard Landsat satellites while still making standard Landsat 8 and 9 imagery data free and openly available. However, there are apparent and significant concerns or risks that could make such an option difficult to implement. For this reason they recommend a further review of these concerns if this approach is considered.

The report also examines other approaches to cost-recovery or cost-avoidance for the Landsat programme. The advisory group says that moving from the current Government-owned, Contractor-operated (GOCO) business model, to a Contractor-owned, Contractor-operated (COCO) business model could provide for more efficient delivery of Landsat data and provision of data management services at lower costs, but says that further research is needed to examine the benefits and costs of such a transition.

The LAG further said that a public private partnership could allow the US Government to benefit from some of the efficiencies of the private sector industry, while maintaining Landsat continuity. It could also preserve public/open availability of Landsat-quality data. However, this approach depends upon the ability of private industry to develop and implement a successful business model and upon any legal changes required including amending the Land Remote Sensing Policy Act. The advisory group thus recommends that further research determine if a sufficient business case exists and what legal changes are required to support exploration of the creation of public-private partnership(s).

As the overall motivation for examining cost sharing alternatives is to reduce the public expenditures required to sustain Landsat data collections and continuity, the LAG believes that a more significant study would be to analyse how the costs of building and launching Landsat sensors could be reduced, rather than focusing on cost sharing of operations. This is consistent with the group’s recommendation made in April 2018,  that the US Government should aggressively investigate rapidly emerging and increasingly proven technologies which could greatly reduce the cost of Landsat missions.

Read the full report here:

Contact LAG,

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