Once an Adversary, the Government Just Made DigitalGlobe Inc’s Day

Imagine having the technology to help you gain significant share of a large addressable market, only to be told you can't use it to enter that market.

Up until yesterday, you'd know how the folks at DigitalGlobe (NYSE: DGI  )  must have felt. DigitalGlobe is currently the only provider of commercial satellite imagery in the United States, but previously wasn't allowed by the government to sell its best imagery to commercial clients. According to CFO Yancey Spruill, that meant they couldn't participate in an approximately $400 million-per-year global addressable market.

Currently, that market is dominated by high-resolution imagery from aerial surveyors, the cost for which can run anywhere from $100 to $300 per square kilometer. DigitalGlobe's satellite imagery generally boasts lower resolution, but can also be provided in a more timely fashion and for a fraction of the cost.

A new market ripe for the picking
On Wednesday, however, DigitalGlobe announced that the U.S. Department of Commerce officially gave it the go-ahead to sell the highest-resolution imagery available from its current constellation of satellites to the commercial market. That honor currently rests with DigitalGlobe's GeoEye-1 and Worldview-2 satellites, which can collect panchromatic imagery with impressive resolutions of 0.41m and 0.46m, respectively. For perspective, that's more than good enough to complete many image-processing tasks required by commercial clients.

DigitalGlobe's WorldView-3 satellite will deliver 0.31m resolution images. Source: DigitalGlobe.

Even better, the DOC's updated approvals now allow DigitalGlobe to sell imagery to all of its customers at up to 0.25m panchromatic, and 1.0m multispectral ground sample distance beginning six months after its new WorldView-3 satellite is operational. Worldview-3 is slated to launch in mid-August, and will be capable of taking snapshots of Earth at a resolution of 0.31m. 

CEO Jeffrey Tarr also gave a nod to the Departments of Commerce, Defense, and State, calling their collective decision a "forward-leaning change to our nation's policy that will fuel innovation, create new high-tech jobs, and advance the nation's commanding lead in this strategically important industry."

It won't happen all at once
This doesn't mean shareholders should expect DigitalGlobe to be immediately inundated with new commercial customers. Sure, some will bite right away, but it'll take some time for DigitalGlobe to market its highest-resolution wares to its newest prospective clients.

At the same time, this could also help offset any negative financial impact DigitalGlobe might see following Google's (NASDAQ: GOOG  )   (NASDAQ: GOOGL  ) recent $500 million acquisition of Skybox, a real-time satellite imagery start-up. Google, for its part, has indicated plans to use Skybox to both help keep Google Earth imagery up-to-date and potentially provide satellite Internet access to unconnected parts of the globe. The negative effects of Google's move on DigitalGlobe are still unclear, and it's worth noting the company still collects the vast majority of its revenue from government contracts.

But remember DigitalGlobe is also on the cusp of sustained profitability, and its shares jumped almost 15% in a single day last month after its net loss narrowed to $0.6 million, or $0.01 per share. If one thing is sure, it's that this development is favorable considering it should allow DigitalGlobe to secure additional top-line growth without requiring significant new capital investment.

All things considered, I think DigitalGlobe investors have every reason to rejoice today.

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Steve Symington

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