The heads of two European companies on Oct. 27 said the decision by the U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) to award 10-year contracts with a total value of $7.3 billion to two U.S. companies is a threat to Europe’s commercial Earth imaging industry and should be viewed as equivalent to protectionism.

Telespazio Chairman Giuseppe Viriglio and Evert Dudok, chief executive of Astrium Satellites, a major satellite manufacturer, said the NGA contracts to GeoEye and DigitalGlobe will inevitably distort the global market for commercial satellite Earth imagery.

They conceded that NGA was not motivated by protectionism when it concluded the two contracts. But they said by enabling the two companies to produce such a vast quantity of imagery with a guaranteed customer, the U.S. agency has put its thumb on the scales of an emerging commercial market.

“It’s obvious that if you create a market for $7 billion in imagery over 10 years, you allow your suppliers to sell imagery to the rest of the world at a marginal cost,” Dudok said. “You are creating a de facto monopoly, or duopoly, for the production of data. This is a global market.”

Viriglio, whose company specializes in satellite services, said the NGA move demands a response from Europe, but providing one will not be easy. “The business will not be sustainable anymore for some companies because of this NGA award,” Viriglio said. “How are we supposed to respond to a contract that calls for the production of so much data?”

The NGA award was announced in August.

Karyn Hayes-Ryan, director of the NGA’s commercial imagery, data and programs group, said in September that the agency took steps, in preparing what it calls its EnhancedView contracts, to reduce the likelihood of upsetting the global commercial market.

EnhancedView concerns mainly the provision of high-resolution optical satellite imagery. In Europe, the commercial imagery providers have focused on medium-resolution imagery, which has wider swath widths and is more suitable for mapmaking and other activities.

Companies in Germany and Italy, including Telespazio’s e-Geos affiliate and Infoterra, a sister company to Astrium Satellites, are also focusing on radar Earth observation and have made modest entries into the U.S. government market.

Dudok said the wider problem is that U.S. companies have more access to European government markets than European companies have to U.S. government markets. Dudok has criticized the fact that U.S. propulsion systems are being used for Europe’s Galileo satellite constellation, whereas the U.S. GPS constellation relies on U.S. components.

“What we need is reciprocity,” Dudok said. “If we invite the U.S. to bid on our systems, we should be able to participate in theirs.”