Feb 24, 2010

With U.S. Contracts Delayed, DigitalGlobe Looks Elsewhere for 2010 Growth

Estimated Article Reading Time: 4 min.

PARIS — Earth-observation services provider DigitalGlobe on Feb. 24 said delays in new contracts with the U.S. government — the customer responsible for 75 percent of its revenue — likely will limit the company’s growth in 2010 but that a recovering global economy should boost non-U.S. government business.

Longmont, Colo.-based DigitalGlobe forecasts that a 15 percent increase in revenue from commercial customers in 2010, combined with contracts with military customers outside the United States, will grow the company’s revenue by 22 percent in 2010 even if its U.S. government business remains stuck at 2009 levels.

In a Feb. 24 conference call with investors and a filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), DigitalGlobe said that, unlikely as it may appear, it will not generate much revenue in 2010 from U.S. government purchase of imagery from the new WorldView-2 satellite, which was launched in October and declared operational in early January.

WorldView-2, which offers sharper imagery and eight spectral bands, is the company’s most valuable asset. DigitalGlobe Chief Executive Jill D. Smith said the satellite’s performance in orbit — a sum of its collection speed, agility and image quality — “has exceeded our own expectations.”

But it will be DigitalGlobe’s non-U.S. customers that will make the most use of it this year.

Smith said the zero-increase scenario with respect to the U.S. government, whose purchases are made through the U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), is due to two factors.

First, the U.S. Defense Department budget appropriations legislation was not approved until late December, three months later than expected, slowing the ability of U.S. defense agencies to book new orders through NGA for imagery outside of an existing, multiyear contract called NextView that is set to expire March 31. DigitalGlobe receives $12.5 million per month under the NextView contract.

Second, NGA has yet to contract with DigitalGlobe — or with competitor GeoEye Inc. of Dulles, Va. — on a NextView successor program called EnhancedView.

Smith said DigitalGlobe has received a request for bids on the EnhancedView program and will respond by the March 8 deadline. She declined to speculate on the revenue potential of the EnhancedView contract, but said that even if it is concluded by late March it will not generate much revenue before late in 2010.

Until then, DigitalGlobe will continue operating under a NextView contract that itself was modified Feb. 9, according to DigitalGlobe’s SEC filing. Under the new agreement, NGA will not extend NextView by nine months, to the end of 2010, but only by three months, to June 30. After that, the agency may extend the contract on a month-by-month basis through December.

With NGA revenue handled outside the NextView contract delayed by the U.S. government budget process, and revenue from the expected EnhancedView contract unlikely before late this year, DigitalGlobe will count on its commercial business and its government customers outside the United States in 2010, company officials said.

Unlike its government customers, DigitalGlobe’s commercial customers most often select images from the company’s extensive image library rather than send a request that a satellite be tasked to image a given location. Some 77 percent of the company’s commercial revenue comes from customers purchasing images from the DigitalGlobe library.

DigitalGlobe commercial revenue declined by 3.6 percent in 2009 compared with 2008, to $50.9 million. Company Chief Financial Officer Yancey L. Spruill said during the conference call that this business, which suffered during the global economic downturn, will increase by 15 percent in 2010.

DigitalGlobe has long said the WorldView-2 satellite will enable the company to harvest fresh business outside North America. Through its Direct Access Program (DAP), DigitalGlobe is able to contract with U.S. government-approved partners that represent government agencies and agree to pay DigitalGlobe minimum fees to access WorldView-2 in their territories.

DAP partners are able to send commands to WorldView-2, and to receive imagery — under limits set by the U.S. government — directly in their operating territories.

DigitalGlobe has signed agreements with four DAP partners. Once these four have been equipped with WorldView-2 ground hardware, they will be paying DigitalGlobe a total of about $35 million per year.

But Smith said it can take six to 15 months after a DAP contract agreement before revenue begins to flow from the partner given how long it takes to build, install and commission the ground infrastructure. For that reason, she said, the four DAP agreements will not reach their cruising-speed payment rate of $35 million per year until late in 2010.

A fifth DAP partner is about to be put under contract, and DigitalGlobe has told investors to expect a total of seven to be secured by the end of 2010. Over time, seven DAP customers would be paying about $50 million per year in satellite-access fees to DigitalGlobe.

DigitalGlobe has structured its DAP contracts so that no more than 25 percent of the company’s satellite capacity in any given region is reserved by DAP customers.

DigitalGlobe operates two satellites — QuickBird and WorldView-1 — in addition to WorldView-2. The NGA’s NextView contract has booked almost all the capacity on WorldView-1.

For 2009, DigitalGlobe reported revenue of $281.9 million, up 2.4 percent over 2008 as defense customers, mainly the NGA, increased their business by 3.9 percent and more than offset the decline in commercial business. For 2010, DigitalGlobe forecasts revenue of $330 million to $360 million.

EBITDA, or earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization, was 60 percent of revenue in 2009, down from 64 percent in 2008.

By Peter B. de Selding

SOURCE Space News