Database Deals

The cost of feeding a GPS should soon average about $300 a year. Dont expect free data on the Internet, though.

The U.S. government spends billions on GPS. Yet to fly a GPS approach, Ive got to hand over $500 bucks a year to a private company to buy data they got free from public documents. It doesnt seem fair.

And judging by the sales of IFR databases for GPS receivers, many owners are voting-or more accurately not voting-with their checkbooks and passing up regular database revisions. Database costs have recently come down a bit but they still arent exactly cheap.

Interestingly, a court skirmish between the National Basketball Association and some media interests may have long-term implications for the GPS database business.

The issues are all wrapped up in the finer points of copyright law and competitive costs related to collecting and distributing navigation data.

Jepp Rules
At the moment, only a couple of companies sell aeronautical navigation databases, including the industrys 900-pound gorilla, Jeppesen-Sanderson Inc. By default, Jepp owns the market for several reasons. Chief among them is from day one, Jeppesen was a leader in developing both the charts and the procedures that define the current IFR system. Theyve got a 50-year head start.

Second, Jeppesen has built an extensive-and expensive-edifice to support worldwide aeronautical data gathering across a range of products from paper, to databases, to training and maintenance related services. Duplicating this network has evidently not been attractive to many companies or Jeppesen would have meaningful competition.

In fact, there are some competitors out there. Along with government charting offices, companies such as Aerad (in England) and SAS (in Sweden) have global coverage, plus a few firms supply specialized navigation databases for big jets.

Theres actually nothing to stop an airline, or indeed an individual, from producing charts and databases. Youd simply carefully compile data from various government sources, then depict it without copying the graphical symbols used by Jeppesen. But the reason that Lufthansa and Alitalia recently closed their charting shops is the huge expense of such an operation.

For Jeppesen, the fixed cost of data analysis is shared by many users. Indeed, other companies are finding Jeppesens economies of scale to be increasingly hard to compete against.

Enter the Internet
This may change. Jeppesen doesnt pay much for its source documents from the government. But it does spend a fortune compiling constantly changing data from more than 180 governments, each of which supplies information in a different form. However, advancements in standardized electronic information exchange may severely erode the cost of entering the charting and database business.

In fact, ICAO is working right now on a global standard for electronic storage and transmission of aeronautical data. Its still a long way off, but it would make worldwide compilations of navigation data relatively easy to construct. Maybe I could do it with a Pentium and a couple of sharp hackers. But what about copyright? Wouldnt I run into problems with Jeppesen or others coming after me for using their information. Not necessarily.

Several types of material are generally not eligible for copyright protection, including works consisting entirely of information that is common property and containing no original authorship. For example… lists or tables taken from public documents or other common sources.

Under current U.S. law, this would include most of the national airspace system data. The Form 8260s which describe approaches and airways in painful detail are all in the public domain.

Moreover, much of the U.S. governments information is already available in electronic form. NIMA (what we used to call the Defense Mapping Agency) is releasing formerly classified worldwide terrain data for use in ground proximity warning systems.

An amazing amount of U.S. navigation data has already been posted on the Internet. Surf over to Airnav at and take a look-its all free. This Web site, put together by a private citizen, makes the FAA extremely uncomfortable, as theyd like to be able to charge for this data in the near future.

In fact, a senior FAA official told me the Web site makes him mad as hell. Its easy to see that one could plug an expanded version of this site into a laptop computer, add a shareware map generating program and, bang-instant navigation database.

Not everybody wants this to happen. There are politically powerful players in the game: National governments and their semi-privatized air traffic service corporations. NavCanada is looking into charging for aeronautical data, and Eurocontrol has lawyers carefully investigating the copyright issues surrounding its aeronautical database.

The subject is complicated by recent changes in international law that increased many copyright protections, but left vague the database issues.

The Basketball Connection
This is where the NBA comes in. The league went after a sports statistics-gathering enterprise that sends out sports scores via pagers. The sports-stats companies pay nothing to the NBA in the form of fees or charges, so the NBA sued for big bucks. The defense relies on a basic tenet of copyright law: facts cannot be copyrighted, only the expression of facts.

Early last year, by a 3-to-0 vote, the 2nd Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in New York reaffirmed the idea that you cannot copyright facts. They reversed a ruling by a lower court judge who had said that the NBAs commercial property was being misappropriated by Motorola and friends.

Regarding the victory, Motorolas attorney Herbert Schwartz said, I think its a very broad-ranging and important decision on the ability of people and on-line sites and other organizations, to use facts that are in the public domain, and to use them essentially immediately.

Because of the First Amendment implications of the case, news organizations, including The New York Times and the Associated Press, filed friend-of-the-court briefs supporting the defendants. However, it seems the judges viewed the NBAs argument as essentially a copyright infringement claim masquerading as commercial property misappropriation.

Their opinion reiterated that the scores of a basketball game are facts and under copyright law, they cannot be copyrighted. The NBA can still appeal this case, so real-time electronic copyright of basketball scores may be heading to the U.S. Supreme Court. Either way, the implications for aeronautical databases seem positively multitudinous.

Get It Free
Why not just require the FAA to load the NAS on the Internet, allowing pilots to download it for nothing. AOPA asked the FAA to do just that. AOPA notes that, a current navigation database is required to use GPS and other area navigation systems for instrument approaches, but those databases are only available from private vendors.

Indeed, it would be wonderful to download an uncopyrightable navigation database from every county in the world. The Department of Defense, the airlines and NOAA all support the plan. The unfortunate down side is that the FAAs data may not be worth the trouble of downloading it. Jeppesen essentially invented what is now the National Flight Data Center, the government clearing house for flight data. The NFDC works fairly well handling updates, but its databases are riddled with errors and arent as complete as private databases. One GPS engineer we know told us how he watched NFDCs raw data move Juno, Alaska one degree in one month. Typos and missing datapoints are common.

Think of it this way: GPS databases charges paid to Jeppesen allow the company to subsidize an under-funded NFDC. Theres worse news. Jeppesen owns the vital coding for GPS approaches. The FAA hasnt coded GPS data into the common ARINC 424 format nor has it coded all the points that Jeppesen has named, or coded path terminators used by autopilots.

In short, NOSs charting office simply missed the boat on navigation databases and is only now beginning to catch up by adding ARINC fixes to its own charts. Just about every GPS product manager we talked to stressed that Jeppesen is the only reliable source for data. The FAA argues that it knows where all the data points are and that it can generate a suitable database.

Hasnt happened yet. Given enough time and money it should be possible to construct a suitable system. Indeed, new international regulations may obligate electronic improvements.

FAA officials have indicated privately that they will press for changes in law, allowing charges for navigation data. While the dream of free FAA data plays in well in the aviation press, its probably an illusion. And even if its not, the free market is already using new technology to our advantage.

Jeppesens corporate vice president for law and administration, Durham Monsma, told us that the actual cost of the nav data, updated every 28 days for a full year, is less than one-third of the $500 charged for a typical database. The rest of the charge is eaten up by the datacards themselves, postage, handling and royalties to the GPS manufacturer.

Bendix/King has already lowered these costs by offering data downloads on the Internet for those willing to bother. Carefully encrypted data is supplied via the Internet, allowing one to pay for, say, just six updates a year, but download them all during the summer flying season.

IFR costs average $350, VFR service about $240; a worthwhile savings over databases that cost $500 to $600 as recently as two years ago. Other companies, including Magellan and IIMorrow, are exploring Web-based data subscriptions.

The grass isnt growing under Jeppesens feet, either. At Oshkosh in July, they announced a card reader service that will allow an owner to download data directly and burn it into the receivers removable card.

The hardware would cost about $400 and a Jeppesen official told us this should reduce data costs by at least 30 percent. Our estimate is that by early next year, data costs will average between $300 and $350 a year, for 28-day revisions.

Jeppesen says the service will be available for Garmin, Trimble, Northstar and Magellan products and should roll out by the end of 1998 or early in 1999.

More price pressure may soon come from the British company Racal, which is already established in Europe and purchased of chartmaker Aerad a year ago. A Racal official says the company will break into the U.S. market.

So there is definite downward price pressure and emerging competition in the database business. Thats good news. But dont hold your breath waiting for free data on the Internet. It may appear but we doubt youd be comfortable flying IFR with it.

Expect database costs to go down noticeably during the next year. We cant predict just how much theyll decline, but we are free to tell you that the Chicago Bulls are beating the Lakers, 78 to 70 with five minutes left. Stay tuned.

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by Dave English

Dave English is an airline pilot, CFII and freelance writer.