GeoEye Expects Steady NGA Funding for New Satellite

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WASHINGTON — Geospatial imagery and services provider GeoEye said it fully expects to receive a $111 million payment from its principal U.S. government customer by June under the terms of a contract calling for the government to share the costs of the company’s high-resolution GeoEye-2 optical Earth observation satellite.

GeoEye officials said payment from the U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) was accrued by the agency in 2010 and 2011 — before anticipated reductions in NGA’s budget.

Herndon, Va.-based GeoEye and its competitor, DigitalGlobe of Longmont, Colo., are dividing a 10-year, $7.3 billion contract award from NGA’s EnhancedView project. The contract is structured as a series of one-year commitments that in principle will be renewed but in fact are the subject of rampant speculation in Washington about whether EnhancedView’s budget will be slashed.

As the two companies hit predetermined milestones under the EnhancedView contract, NGA payments, in the form of monthly Service-Level Agreements, increase.

EnhancedView requires both companies to make substantial capital investments in their satellite constellations and their ground infrastructure.

In GeoEye’s case, EnhancedView calls on the company to build and launch a GeoEye-2 satellite with a ground resolution of 34 centimeters, meaning it can detect objects of that diameter and larger.

GeoEye has hired Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Sunnyvale, Calif., to build GeoEye-2, and has reserved a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 vehicle to launch the satellite in early 2013.

In a March 13 submission to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), GeoEye said the satellite contract is on schedule and was expected to cost about $835 million including launch and insurance.

The company spent $269 million on GeoEye-2 in 2011 and expects to spend an additional $235 million in 2012.

In a March 13 conference call with investors, GeoEye Chief Executive Matthew O’Connell said the satellite’s status is in line with EnhancedView requirements, meaning GeoEye should receive the $111 million payment by June 30, as scheduled.

The fact that GeoEye and DigitalGlobe feel the need to reassure investors that the U.S. government will make good on its contract commitments is testimony to how destabilizing the current government budget-reduction debate has become for both of them.

Even worse, from the perspective of a company whose stock is publicly traded — this is the case for GeoEye and DigitalGlobe — is the fact that NGA has been unable to inform the companies of what EnhancedView cuts are coming, and when.

“We have not been notified of any cuts to our portion [of EnhancedView],” O’Connell said during the conference call. “Nor has NGA approached us to discuss any cuts. … While it’s likely that there will be some cuts, we can’t predict the size or timing of them.”

Government and industry officials have said the NGA has already decided to trim $50 million from the EnhancedView contract for the government’s current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.

Cuts for fiscal year 2013 are likely to be higher, these officials said.

O’Connell acknowledged this possibility, but said the NGA is withholding judgment on any EnhancedView reductions until a review of the value to the military of commercial satellite imagery is concluded.

The review, being conducted by the offices of the U.S. director of national intelligence and the undersecretary of defense for intelligence, is scheduled for completion by early April.

Meantime, GeoEye is attempting to rally supporters both in the military services and in the U.S. Congress for what is likely to be a months-long battle over the fiscal year 2013 budget.

Whatever the budget outcome, he said, GeoEye will pursue to completion the GeoEye-2 satellite, which when launched will be the world’s highest-resolution commercial Earth observation satellite.

“The government specifically asked for the 34-centimeter resolution” in the EnhancedView contract, O’Connell said, adding that GeoEye’s international government customers have indicated they too want GeoEye-2 imagery.

GeoEye and DigitalGlobe need special permission from the U.S. government to sell imagery with a resolution sharper than 50 centimeters to non-U.S. government customers. O’Connell said he is optimistic that, as has been the case with GeoEye-1, GeoEye will succeed in securing approval to serve its international and commercial customers with GeoEye-2 images.

O’Connell said international customers are likely to receive GeoEye-2 imagery even before NGA given the U.S. agency’s schedule for validating the satellite’s performance. That validation is scheduled for September 2013. Only after that will GeoEye be eligible for the increased monthly payments under the EnhancedView contract.

That being the case, O’Connell said, GeoEye has no problem if the debate with the U.S. Congress over fiscal year 2013 spending results in a freeze at 2012 levels for several months. It is not until fiscal year 2014, beginning in October 2013, that GeoEye is counting on an increase in NGA payments following acceptance of GeoEye-2.

GeoEye reported 2011 revenue of $356.4 million, up 8 percent from 2010, and expects 2012 revenue to increase by around 2 percent. It had $198 million in cash as of Dec. 31, which when added to the $111 million NGA payment and operating cash flow expected in 2012 is more than enough to meet GeoEye-2 and other spending requirements, GeoEye Chief Financial Officer Joseph F. Greeves said during the conference call.