National Land Imaging Program

NLI Fees and Landsat Data Products

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In the Land Remote Sensing Policy Act of 1992, 15 U.S.C. § 5601, the Congress determined that:

  • "The national interest of the United States lies in maintaining international leadership in satellite land remote sensing and in broadly promoting the beneficial use of remote sensing data." Congress also found that "[t]he cost of Landsat data has impeded the use of such data for scientific purposes, such as for global environmental change research, as well as for other public sector applications."

As such, the Congress further found that unenhanced Landsat 7 data should be made available to all users at the cost of fulfilling user requests. 15 U.S.C. § 5601, sec. (3), (4), (13).

The Act required the USGS to implement a nondiscriminatory data policy to carry out these objectives.

Section 5651(a) of the Act provides:

"...data generated by the Landsat system or any other land remote sensing system funded and owned by the United States Government shall be made available to all users without preference, bias, or any other special arrangement (except on the basis of national security concerns pursuant to section 5656 of this title) regarding delivery, format, pricing, or technical considerations which would favor one customer or class of customers over another."

The Congress defined the term "cost of fulfilling user requests" as the "incremental costs associated with providing product generation, reproduction, and distribution of unenhanced data in response to user requests..." 15 U.S.C. § 5602(2).

Consequently, the USGS is limited to what it can charge: incremental costs of product generation and distribution. Under the Act, the USGS may not charge for the capital costs of the Landsat flight or ground system and can only charge for the incremental costs of data reproduction and distribution, which are minimal.

In 2009, the USGS converted from a manual system of data retrieval and processing of multiple products to a fully automated online system that provides all users with a standardized product. This allowed for a streamlined procedure to serve the needs of the Landsat community. Prior to 2009, a variety of public and private cost recovery models, ranging from $15 for a Landsat 1 photographic print to over $4,000 for a digital Landsat 4 scenes, were used.

When Landsat moved to a publicly funded approach by making every scene available at no cost to the user, the number of scenes downloaded increased dramatically and the per-scene download cost dropped to approximately $0.10 each. That sum falls under OMB Circular A-25 guidance on not charging a user fee if the cost of collecting the fee would represent an unduly large part of the fee for the activity.

Because the Internet makes it possible for users to download the images directly from a Web server rather than ordering through the USGS, the bureau has realized savings including eliminating the billing and accounting system required for customer orders and payments.

Landsat data are considered a public good similar to GPS and weather data. USGS practices are similar to NASA and NOAA, which have distributed vast amounts of digital satellite data at no charge to users for many years. These policies have allowed job creation in many information service industries in the United States.

The current Landsat data policy removes dependency on reimbursable income, which can fluctuate greatly from year to year. For example, in 2003, when Landsat 7 had a data anomaly, it lost most of its data sales income.

The shift to providing Landsat images without a fee has also furthered Congress's expressed interest in "stimulat[ing] development of the commercial market for unenhanced data and value-added services" by allowing the USGS to adopt a "data policy for Landsat 7 which allows competition within the private sector for distribution of unenhanced data and value-added services." 15 U.S.C. § 5601(14).

Once the USGS began distributing a standard-format, downloadable digital product at no charge over the Internet:

  • Scenes distributed jumped from approximately 20,000 to over 2,000,000 per year, a 100x increase
  • Education moved from one of the smallest user categories to one of the largest
  • Over 35 states began or expanded the use of Landsat imagery in numerous resource-management categories:

                      Irrigated water monitoring
                      Land cover mapping
                      Land use change studies
                      Public lands management
                      Invasive species detection and monitoring
                      Environmental compliance enforcement
                      Large-area agricultural crop yield/loss estimates
                      Flood, fire, and storm response and recovery
                      Detection of unpermitted dams
                      Forest inventories
                      Lake clarity monitoring
                      Coastal wetlands monitoring
                      Aquaculture site inventories

  • An aging, costly billing and accounting system was eliminated
  • Manual data retrieval and processing tasks were discontinued
  • Per-scene user-distribution costs dropped from dollars to pennies

If the USGS were to reintroduce fees for Landsat products, the cost of collecting and accounting for the allowable amount would exceed the cost of per-scene distribution.

Ultimately, no fee for Landsat images means American taxpayers are not required to pay twice to obtain oceanic, atmospheric, or land-surface data — or weather reports, drought maps, and wide-area flood, fire, and storm-impact images, among other information products derived from U.S. satellites.