The cuts proposed for the U.S. defense budget could have a significant impact on the commercial remote sensing industry as well as the entire geospatial ecosystem. Kevin Pomfret of the Centre for Spatial Law and Policy offers his insights on the potential impacts of the current budget negotiations in Washington.
There is a dispute taking place in Washington that will have a significant impact on the availability of high quality geospatial data for commercial purposes. The EnhancedView program – which would give government agencies access to commercial high resolution satellite imagery and would also provide production and services to support the defense and intelligence communities – is under attack due to current budget constraints. While this battle is often portrayed as solely an issue for DigitalGlobe and GeoEye, the two U.S.-based commercial satellite imagery companies, the outcome will impact numerous existing and planned geospatial products and services that rely on high quality satellite imagery. As a result, this is a battle that should concern the broader geospatial community, much like the ongoing GPS-LightSquared dispute.
EnhancedView is a public-private partnership between the National Geospatial- Intelligence Agency (NGA) and the commercial satellite imagery providers. It was created in Fiscal Year 2010 and was intended as a 10-year program to serve as a complement to national overhead capabilities. GeoEye and DigitalGlobe collectively committed over a billion dollars of private capital to make the investments necessary to fulfill their respective obligations under the program. Such investments, including increased hiring for well-paying, highly skilled geospatial positions and significant purchases of hardware and software from vendors throughout the geospatial community, would continue over the term of the program. However, the companies are now being told that the EnhancedView program may be subject to budget cuts. These potential cuts not only jeopardize the economic viability of the EnhancedView program from a commercial standpoint, but also threaten geospatial positions and vendors throughout the geospatial ecosystem. Given the current economic prognosis, if the program is cut it is unlikely to regain its original form.
Up to now, the commercial imagery providers have been representing the industry in this dispute largely on their own. Since the EnhancedView program falls under the NGA budget, GeoEye and DigitalGlobe are undoubtedly being forced to defend against the trade-off between funding the EnhancedView program and future national imaging systems and collection programs. In such an environment, the odds are clearly stacked against the commercial providers.
However, while at this point the U.S. government is still the primary customer of both DigitalGlobe and GeoEye, many others that now recognize the value of high quality geospatial imagery, including businesses, non-government organizations (NGOs), academics, scientists and consumers, are likely to feel the greatest impact if the EnhancedView program is slashed. Wavering government commitment to the EnhancedView program could make it more expensive for private companies to acquire necessary financing, resulting in fewer imaging satellites and therefore less imagery collected and/or made available for commercial use. Commercial satellite imagery that was available for commercial use might become more expensive, as commercial providers will be forced to otherwise recover their investments. Also, the U.S. role as a leader in the international geospatial technology market would likely decline as companies would be less willing, or financially able, to take risk on future innovation.
The impact would go well beyond GeoEye and DigitalGlobe. Many companies are involved in providing the hardware, software and services necessary to collect, process and use commercial satellite imagery. It is impossible to measure the financial impact a cutback to EnhancedView would have at this time to the broader geospatial industry given the uncertainty in the budget process. It is fair to say, however, that a drastic reduction in the program could hurt a number of geospatial companies that supply DigitalGlobe and GeoEye with these products and services. Similarly, numerous companies are developing products and services that assume increased availability of high quality satellite imagery. If such assumptions prove incorrect, the business models being built around such products and services will be threatened.
Also, the geospatial industry should not underestimate the value of having two U.S.-based public companies as representatives in both the political and financial capitols of the world. Such stature gives them a gravitas and a presence at the table that can be difficult to achieve otherwise. In addition, as good corporate citizens, they are major supporters of numerous trade associations, journals, educational programs and non-profits. Significant cuts in the EnhancedView program likely would result in them having to reevaluate their current commitment levels, which would further impact the geospatial industry.
Moreover, the threat to the EnhancedView program is not an isolated incident. Rather it is an example of steps taken by governments around the world that would effectively limit or regulate the collection and/or availability of geospatial data. The reasons given for such efforts vary. Government agencies will justify their efforts by citing concerns over budgets, privacy or national security. In some cases, their efforts are simply intended to protect local businesses. Often, such limitations will appear to impact one form of geospatial data type, or a particular sensor. However, as is the case with cuts to the EnhancedView program, the impact will be felt throughout the geospatial industry.
As a result, it is time for the various segments of the geospatial industry to look beyond their respective domains and understand the impact such measures might have. The future growth of the geospatial industry as a whole will depend upon its success in fighting such measures. The challenge for the geospatial industry will be to see things not as a “commercial remote sensing” problem, or a “GPS” problem, or a “smartphone” problem, but as broader issue that impacts the entire geospatial ecosystem. Unless the industry is willing to work together to address these issues, it may find restrictions on the collection, use and transfer of the geospatial data – the lifeblood of the industry – to be burdensome.