U.S. satellite imagery provider DigitalGlobe’s bid for regulatory permission to sell sharper imagery to non-U.S. government customers has received a major boost in the form of a formal endorsement by the intelligence community.

The endorsement was publicly disclosed in mid-April by the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, and the directors of two key component agencies: the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and the National Reconnaissance Office. 

Although the White House also must consider input from other federal agencies including the departments of State, Defense, Homeland Security and Commerce, it should be hard pressed at this point to deny DigitalGlobe’s request, which also has strong support in the U.S. Congress.

DigitalGlobe in 2013 asked the Commerce Department to modify its remote sensing operating license to allow it to sell imagery at resolutions as sharp as 25 centimeters — objects of that size and larger are discernible in the pictures — on the open market. The company had hoped to hear back before the end of 2013, but the wheels of government decision-making grind slowly.

Currently DigitalGlobe imagery with better than 50-centimeter resolution can be sold only to the company’s U.S. government customers, primarily the Pentagon and intelligence community. 

DigitalGlobe’s satellites can collect imagery as sharp as 46 centimeters in resolution, but the company’s WorldView-3 satellite, slated to launch in August, will be able to distinguish objects as small as 31 centimeters across. The impending arrival of this satellite, coupled with increased competition from the aerial photography industry, prompted DigitalGlobe’s request.

The U.S. government’s commercial remote sensing regulatory policies have traditionally been driven by concerns that high-quality satellite photos in the wrong hands could harm national security and foreign policy interests. The resulting restrictions have typically tracked with the capabilities of commercial satellites outside of U.S. regulatory control, the idea being to protect U.S. interests while keeping American companies a step ahead of the competition. 

But the march of technology inevitably renders capability-based restrictions obsolete. DigitalGlobe faces increasing competition from the aerial photography industry, which company officials say is making 30-centimeter imagery available in many of its target markets. Satellites are able to cover sensitive areas denied to aircraft, but the growing availability and capability of unmanned aerial vehicles is blurring that distinction. Moreover, while U.S. industry still holds an edge in satellite imaging technology, that gap has closed in recent years, particularly for what’s available in the commercial realm.

The intelligence community’s endorsement of DigitalGlobe’s request obviously isn’t the last word on the matter. In making its decision, the White House likely will give substantial weight to feedback from the State Department, which in years past has fought for, and won, restrictions on commercial imaging activities.

State’s position on the matter at hand is unclear, but either way, it should not be the last word either. This is not to say that foreign policy concerns aren’t important, but in the absence of a national security threat there is no reason to give them any more weight than economic interests. Notable in this regard is that Mr. Clapper’s position appears to be fully supported by the NGA and NRO, which know a thing or two about collecting and exploiting satellite imagery for national security purposes. 

DigitalGlobe remains heavily reliant on government business, with the NGA as its anchor customer, but the company is working hard to reduce this dependency and anticipates a surge in commercial demand if the current resolution restrictions are eased. The company has even raised the possibility of moving up the launch of its GeoEye-2 satellite, which otherwise will be stored until needed, to meet that pent up demand.

The satellite imaging industry eagerly awaits the administration’s decision. If the answer is “no,” the White House should have a compelling reason why, and be ready to share it — preferably publicly, but at least with the interested parties.


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