PARIS — The European Commission has agreed to permit free access to data from its Sentinel series of Earth observation satellites, concluding that any harm to private-sector satellite operators will be outweighed by the expected growth in value-added services derived from the data.

After a long process of evaluation that included input from the European Association of Remote Sensing Companies (EARSC), an association of private-sector providers of Earth observation data, the commission has agreed to align itself with a policy already adopted by the 20-nation European Space Agency (ESA).

ESA and the commission, which is the executive arm of the 28-nation European Union, together already have spent some 3.2 billion euros ($4.2 billion) on an elaborate space-based Earth observation network including the fleet of Sentinel optical and radar spacecraft. 

The system used to be called Global Monitoring for Environment and Security, or GMES. It is now called Copernicus and its ownership is gradually transferring from ESA to the European Commission. 

The commission, after initially seeking to expel Copernicus from its next seven-year budget, has bowed to demands from the European Parliament, ESA and individual European governments and agreed to spend a further 3.8 billion euros on Copernicus between 2014 and 2020.

The funding will complete the development of the Sentinel satellites, finance their options and also stimulate the growth of a user community that commission officials hope one day may be strong enough to take part ownership of the system.

ESA decided several years ago to follow the U.S. government’s Landsat example and eliminate charges for access to ESA-owned Earth observation satellites. It was a victory for those who believe the U.S. GPS example will work for Earth observation as well: The government provides access to the raw data free of charge, and the private sector thrives by developing services based on the data.

There is no private-sector GPS satellite operator. But in Europe, where commercial Earth observation was invented in the mid-1980s, several companies have raised private capital to build and launch their own satellites. Data sales are part of the business model, even if services are where the growth is.

The existence of these companies — including Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd.’s DMC International Imaging (DMCii) in Britain, Astrium Services in France and Deimos in Spain — complicated the decision for the European Commission.

Released July 12, the commission’s policy includes restrictions designed to prevent the millions of euros dedicated to developing Copernicus services from overwhelming the still-fragile private sector.

The free-and-open-access policy does not include data and information collected by the Copernicus program from third-party providers.

Copernicus’ 3.8 billion-euro budget is far less than what the program’s backers had said was needed to fully develop the system’s potential and assure its continuity over the long term. It remains unclear how much of this budget will be reserved for services, and how much will be needed maintain the satellite fleet and dedicated ground infrastructure.

In its decision, the commission said the private sector “is most concerned with the scope of the services financed through [Copernicus], as a modification of this scope may endanger private-sector investment in new services.”

David Hodgson, chief executive of DMCii, which reports about 20 million British pounds ($30.4 million) in annual revenue from its constellation, said his reading of the commission’s policy is that it will not upend DMCii’s business model.

Hodgson said July 17 during the U.K. Space Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, that the DMCii constellation, whose satellites are owned by several governments that have agreed to let DMCii manage the network, will offer customers a superior product to what the Sentinel spacecraft can produce.

Hodgson said he would prefer a model such as that of the Netherlands Space Office, which purchases data from DMCii and others and then offers it free to registered users. But unlike the European Commission, the Dutch government does not own its own satellites.

In a December 2012 study, EARSC agreed that free access to Copernicus data would stimulate the industry more than it would hurt it, and ultimately generate more in tax revenue from a thriving downstream sector than the revenue potential of selling the data.

The commission said in its regulation that it is “not economically efficient to limit the use of public information through charging and enforcing restrictive licensing of intellectual property rights. Furthermore, the cost of making data and information available to the public free of charge has been reduced with the advent of electronic media and efficient broadband networks.”

The commission further concluded that the fastest-growing segment of the commercial Earth observation market is for high-resolution imagery, which is not part of the Copernicus service offering.

The first Copernicus satellite, called Sentinel 1A, is scheduled for launch in February.


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Peter B. de Selding was the Paris Bureau Chief for SpaceNews.