Unexpected Competition, Launch Delay Are Drag on DigitalGlobe Revenue

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PARIS — Geospatial imagery and services provider DigitalGlobe on Feb. 26 reported sharply lower year-end revenue for 2013 than it had predicted in mid-November and said 2014 revenue would also be much lower than it had forecast.

The company said unexpected competition at the low end of its product offering, mainly from Europe’s Airbus Defence and Space’s Pleiades satellites, combined with a 2.5-month delay in the launch of its WorldView-3 satellite, were to blame for most of the shortfall.

WorldView-3 is now scheduled for launch aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket in mid-August from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. If that date holds, the satellite will be fully operational by mid-November rather than by early September, the date DigitalGlobe had counted on when it last spoke with investors in mid-November.

The 2.5-month delay in service will deprive the company of $25 million in U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) revenue in 2014. These payments will not be lost, only deferred.

The late-2013 issues related to competition with Airbus, much of it for emerging-market business, “came on suddenly for us,” DigitalGlobe Chief Executive Jeffrey R. Tarr said in a Feb. 26 conference call with investors. Tarr said the kinds of customers active in this part of the market represent no more than 6 percent of DigitalGlobe’s annual revenue, and that the company intends to invest in sales and marketing to meet the competitive challenges.

Even so, DigitalGlobe reported revenue for 2013 of $613 million, compared with the $635 million it had projected during its Nov. 20 investor day. And instead of revenue of about $699 million in 2014, the company now expects to report $645 million.

Investor reaction was immediate. DigitalGlobe stock dropped 27 percent in trading on the New York Stock Exchange Feb. 26, wiping out some $865 million in market capitalization in seven hours.

In the conference call, Tarr sought to characterize the issues as speed bumps on the way to what he said will be a business generating $1 billion in revenue within five years.

The current problems related to the competition, he said, will be addressed by fine-tuning DigitalGlobe’s approach to a market that, until now, it had not spent much time addressing: small, relatively undemanding customers for which Airbus’ 70-centimeter-resolution Pleiades imagery resampled to appear as 50-centimeter imagery is sufficient.

DigitalGlobe, in response, is introducing its own 70-centimeter product, which would be resampled from lower-resolution imagery to arrive at 70 centimeters, or from higher-resolution images whose sharpness is diluted to the 70-centimeter value.

A video by Mapbox, which uses satellite imagery from Skybox (above) and Digitalglobe to produce high-resolution video, of planes landing in Beijing.

 

Image resampling is accomplished through layering images on top of one another in such a way as to produce a final product that, to average customers, provides a higher-resolution effect.

Airbus Defence and Space, formerly Astrium Geo-Information Services, has been doing this for years with its lower-resolution Spot series of Earth observation satellites, and is doing the same with the two Pleiades satellites.

“There is a very substantial difference between native 70 and our native 50,” Tarr said. “But the transactional customer coming in … trying to get that small $10,000 transaction done, is more susceptible to price pressure, more susceptible to confusion in the marketplace about the differences between native 50 and resampled 50.”

Tarr said DigitalGlobe’s new 70-centimeter product offering, which will compete with Israel-based ImageSat International’s 80-centimeter product in addition to Airbus, would provide superior graphic quality to the competition without cannibalizing the company’s 50-centimeter-resolution products.

With unexpected competition at the lower end of the market, Tarr said, the company will redouble its efforts to win U.S. government approval to reach more high-end customers.

It has been nine months since DigitalGlobe requested that its U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration license be modified to permit the company to sell products with a resolution sharper than the current limit of 50 centimeters in black and white and 2 meters in color.

Two of the company’s current five satellites, WorldView-2 and GeoEye-1, offer sharper imagery than that available for general commercial sales, and the WorldView-3 will too.

Tarr has characterized his company’s request as a way to battle the dozens of aerial-imagery companies around the world and offering higher-resolution products. “We are coming up on the one-year anniversary of our application” to allow higher-resolution imagery to be sold commercially, Tarr said. “Hopefully that creates some sense of urgency.”

WorldView-3 is under construction by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. of Boulder, Colo., which on Jan. 27 said the satellite’s assembly had been completed in preparation for a series of performance-validating tests and several weeks of thermal-vacuum tests.

Tarr said the satellite itself is not the issue in the launch delay. Competition for launch personnel and for launch slots at the Vandenberg spaceport had caused a delay in the planned launch date.

Under the company’s contract with NGA, revenue is received following certain milestones. For WorldView-3, the milestone is when the satellite is declared fully operational in orbit. DigitalGlobe said it would take about 90 days from launch to reach full operational status, delaying receipt of the $25 million milestone payment.

Because DigitalGlobe needs to incur almost no additional costs beyond what it is already incurring to receive the revenue complement, removing $25 million from its 2014 accounts will have an outsize effect on the company’s gross profit. 

 

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