TAMPA, Fla. — The U.S. intelligence community’s publicly announced endorsement of imaging satellite operator DigitalGlobe’s request to sell its highest-resolution photos on the open market likely helps the company’s cause, but it is not the final word on the matter.
The White House, which is weighing the request, also must consider input from the other U.S. government stakeholders, including the departments of State, Commerce, Defense and Homeland Security.
The pending decision will be based on national security as well as economic considerations, a U.S. government official said, adding that the matter should be resolved soon. The official declined to be more specific.
Still, having the intelligence community squarely in its camp certainly will not hurt DigitalGlobe’s cause.
“As far as I’m concerned, it certainly bodes well for industry,” James Clapper, the U.S. director of national intelligence, said during the Geoint conference here.
It was during the conference April 15 that Clapper, along with Letitia Long, director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), announced they had formally recommended that the White House approve DigitalGlobe’s request.
DigitalGlobe’s commercial remote sensing license with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration limits its sale of imagery with better than 50-centimeter spatial resolution to U.S. government customers only. Resolution is a commonly used measure of imagery sharpness: 50-centimeter imagery is sharp enough to distinguish ground objects of that size or larger.
Last year, citing competition from the aerial photography industry, and in anticipation of the launch of its newest and most capable satellite, DigitalGlobe requested that NOAA modify its license to permit the company to sell imagery with 25-centimeter resolution to non-U.S. government customers.
Longmont, Colo.-based DigitalGlobe currently operates a fleet of five satellites, the most capable of which can collect images with resolutions as sharp as 46 centimeters. But the company’s WorldView-3 satellite, now scheduled to launch in August, will be able to take black-and-white pictures at resolutions as sharp as 31 centimeters.
Company officials had anticipated a ruling before the end of 2013, but the complex nature of the request triggered a deliberative process involving multiple agencies, one that tends to move at a slow pace. “Because there are national security implications, the White House is extremely interested in this,” Long said.
Congress, which generally supports the U.S. commercial remote sensing industry, has also weighed in on the matter. Authorization legislation drafted in November by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence encouraged the NGA and the director of national intelligence to “promptly review” a licensing request from an unspecified U.S. company to sell electro-optical imagery with 25-centimeter resolution to non-U.S. government customers.
“The Committee is concerned that foreign commercial imagery providers may soon be able to provide imagery at or better than the currently allowed commercial U.S. resolution limit of 0.5 meters,” the report accompanying the legislation said.
During the conference, Rep. C.A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger (D-Md.), the ranking member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, urged the government to quickly approve DigitalGlobe’s request. In an interview April 17, Ruppersberger said further delays, or the adoption of a phased approach in which restrictions are eased incrementally over several years, could hurt U.S. businesses.
“We’ve got to do that now. We can’t wait and phase it in,” Ruppersberger said. “It’s to no one’s advantage to hold up at this point. Especially India, France, they’re cleaning our clocks right now.”
Although the NGA is DigitalGlobe’s biggest customer, the company is looking to broaden its non-U.S. government business and has said it could better compete with the aerial photography business if allowed to run higher-resolution data. According to DigitalGlobe, aerial imagery with 30-centimeter resolution is widely available.
DigitalGlobe appears to have another ally in the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office, which buys and operates the nation’s classified intelligence gathering satellites and is often viewed as being in competition with the commercial remote sensing industry.
In a rare public speech at the Geoint conference April 16, NRO Director Betty Sapp said she supports DigitalGlobe’s request.
“The NRO has always been a very strong supporter of the commercial imagery guys. We share hardware, software, test equipment and new technology. We want to continue that in a much more fundamental way in the future,” Sapp said. “We want to make sure whatever they do, we can take full advantage of. We want to make sure we’re not doing anything they can do.”
In an April 15 email, Walter Scott, DigitalGlobe’s founder and chief technical officer, said the company “appreciates the Intelligence Community’s support for reforms to the current U.S. regulations on the resolution of commercial satellite imagery. We are hopeful that the administration will act promptly on this issue to advance the nation’s commanding lead in this strategically important industry, fuel innovation, and create new high-tech jobs.”
Tahara Dawkins, director of commercial remote sensing regulatory affairs at NOAA, said in an April 15 email that the agency could not discuss DigitalGlobe’s request.
Follow Mike on Twitter: @Gruss_SN
U.S. Intel Community Endorses Easing Resolution Limits on Commercial Imagery
Satellite Imagery Firms in U.S. and Europe Pushing for Permission To Sell Sharper Imagery