The Fate of U.S. Commercial Satellite Imagery

Why You Should Care
By LBx Staff | Published April 11, 2012, 10:19pm

The Fate of U.S. Commercial Satellite Imagery <em>&copy;LBx Journal, 2012</em>

Satellite imagery was something that the general public did not have access to before 2005. People caught glimpses of the stories satellite imagery could tell only from documentaries produced from the likes of Nova and National Geographic. Google Earth changed all that June 2005 and made satellite imagery accessible to anyone with a computer, for free. Google Earth has inspired the world to think differently about the earth because it has made these images accessible.

But what’s the source of all this satellite imagery (or what is termed Earth observation)? There are lots of free, government sources of satellite imagery like Landsat, and weather satellites from NASA and NOAA, but these are not high-resolution satellites that can zoom in on your house, or support 3D modeling for engineering and virtual reality-type applications. High-resolution imagery (sub-meter—that’s less than 40 inches) for commercial use is currently only available from GeoEye, DigitalGlobe, Astrium Geo, and ImageSat. GeoEye and DigitalGlobe represent approximately 75% of this market, and 2/3 of their revenue is tied to the U.S.  government. 

Google Earth alone purchases 10s of millions of square kilometers of sub-meter imagery that covers 50% of the world population. So that makes the proposed budget cuts to the EnhancedView program a big deal to everyone in the location-based services and technology chain who depend on satellite imagery for anything from mapping accuracy (which means accurate directions on your mobile phone), to wireless network build-outs, to climate change research, to real estate search. 

While the commercial satellite imagery business may be small relative to a $10 billion LBS market, a $2 trillion telecommunications market, a $7-8 billion business intelligence market, and a $300 billion advertising market, commercial satellite imagery is a critical component of the location-enabled services economy—not to mention how it saves countless lives in emergency response to natural disasters and life-threatening incidents and events.

U.S.  commercial satellite imagery, for better or worse, is subsidized by the U.S.  government. (By the way, so are GPS and GIS, which are addition foundational layers in enabling location-based services and technologies.) 

The EnhancedView program is a $7.3 billion, 10 year contract for commercial satellite imagery from 2 publicly traded U.S.  companies:  GeoEye and DigitalGlobe. These companies have invested $1 billion in new capabilities based on this government program, and a majority of their revenues come from these government contracts.

As a result of Congress’ bipartisan Super Committee failure to come up with the $1.2 trillion in savings required in the deal that raised the debt ceiling in August 2011, the Defense Department now must cut $492 billion in spending. Two-thirds of GeoEye and DigitalGlobe revenues come from the NGA. Compared to other defense programs, EnhancedView is small, but it is subject to deep cuts that could redefine U.S.  commercial satellite capabilities and negatively impact private and public sector businesses, as well as applications that depend on commercial satellite imagery for anything from emergency management to consumer real estate and location-based services.