The UK Hydrographic Office is withholding hundreds of Electronic Navigational Charts
THROUGH my work, I am intimately acquainted with what feels like a scandal in the making. Right now, it’s only a big deal in the small hydrographic community, but — as mandatory Ecdis drives more attention to the market — it may explode into headlines.
Mandatory Ecdis will require shipowners to get ENCs (the official Electronic Navigational Charts proscribed by the International Maritime Organization and International Hydrographic Organization), or risk port state detention. Contrary to its own intentions to make ENCs widely available to a non-profit, central and independent organisation, the UK Hydrographic Office is withholding hundreds of ENCs. It has betrayed its multilateral intentions and gone bilateral, using governmental muscle.
But it did not have to be like this. A principle called WEND stated that hydrographic offices would make all ENCs available through non-commercial entities called Regional ENC co-ordinating centres.
Today, there are two: the Primar RENC in Norway and the UK’s IC-ENC; the UKHO runs the latter. These non-profit entities make the full database of ENCs available to distributors.
The beauty of the RENC is this — a quality-controlled and professional channel for hydrographic offices to make charts available to the market. Without RENCs, shipowners and distributors would need to patch together dozens of agreements with individual hydrographic offices. Most offices, distributors and owners are not prepared for such a scenario.
It is disturbing that the UKHO has neglected to make hundreds of ENCs available to the RENCs. Hydrographic offices and distributors have complained that this move compromises safety and innovation. One insider said: “Chart suppliers should not compete on access to charts, but on the price, the service and value they add to delivery.”
This issue pops up frequently in the Ecdis Yahoo! group. Why has the UKHO ventured into these murky waters? It possesses two conflicting missions, one as governmental regulator and another as market actor. But the latter role, which is exposed to competition, is leveraging the former, which is granted by the queen. The result bends any definition of fairness.
Anyone doubting the UKHO’s profit motives need only go to its website. I quote the vision: “To become the world leader in the supply of digital hydrographic information and services.”
Time will tell if the UKHO’s move blows up in its face. As more shipowners scrutinise this market, they will start screaming. After all, we all know what monopolies do to prices, and if there is anyone in the world who is price conscious, it is shipowners.
Ryan Skinner works at Say PR & Communications in Norway and blogs about marine innovation. Get the latest at http://5956n.typepad.com