Garmin Addresses the High Cost of Subscriptions
The prices of database updates for handheld GPS navigators is very high, approaching a thousand dollars a year for full subscriptions on some products, including Garmin's popular 696 tablet navigator and its 496 portable unit. It's outrageous!
Or is it?
The major problem with the Garmin units is that they're too packed with data. Which is a big reason that so many pilots love them and buy them. With either unit, you get the nav database for the United States or for all of the Americas, and you can get databases for obstacles, terrain, Safetaxi airport diagrams, Flitecharts instrument procedures, the AOPA directory, and XM as well.
Garmin's new plan is to let pilots "bundle" their databases, effectively cutting the price by as much as 50 percent, says Garmin, by letting pilot buy more than one database at the same time when they buy a full year's subscription. The bundling is only good for the 695/696 and 495/496 navigators, though Garmin says it plans to offer new bundles as time goes on, presumably by putting together packages of three or four databases in a bundle, instead of all of them.
But it's a complicated process. I spoke with a Garmin employeed involved in the process who said that figuring out just how to bundle these databases took the better part of a year. Why so complicated? The biggest reason is, Garmin doesn't control all the databases. It works with several outside suppliers, including Jeppesen and AOPA, on the data, so Garmin can't unilaterally cut prices. It has to work with its partners. The XM subscription, already done seperately, will remain so.
The work has paid off, though. A 50 percent reduction is a big deal, and customers will benefit.
It wasn't entirely altrustic, though. Remember that on these handhelds, you don't ever have to update your databases, so a lot of pilots just fly with old data. It's not the safest thing in the world to do. But it's common. I'm sure that by lowering its prices through the bundling process, Garmin hopes to actually increase its profits by getting lots of cost senstive pilots to update instread of using stale data. If it works like that, Garmin will both make some more money and improve safety, while pilots religious about updating will save a bundle.
Garmin is not, I should point out, doing what I thought they were announcing and letting pilots with, say, two GNS430s, buy one database that will cover both units. The logistics of doing this, not to mention the politics of negotiating it with data providers, is daunting. Imagine, for instance, how complicated things would be if an owner, for instance, sold one of those aforementioned 430s to another pilot without reporting that transfer to Garmin. How does Garmin keep track of it all? And bill it all? And provide transparent accounting to its partners?
And there's no question but that the one-subscription-per-unit model is highly profitable.
That all said, the introduction of bundle pricing is certainly a step in the right direction of making regular subscriptions more affordable. If that means that Garmin makes more dough by selling a lot more subscriptions at somewhat lower prices, that's a great outcome in my book. And Garmin, whatever its motivations, should be applauded for getting the ball rolling. I just hope that other manufacturers follow suit.