WASHINGTON — Over the next several years, at least two commercial firms will launch communications satellites that can operate at frequencies reserved for U.S. government users, opening up new avenues for the Defense Department (DoD)to meet its ever-increasing bandwidth demand. But it remains to be seen whether the Pentagon will support the licensing of these satellites and buy capacity from them.

The Defense Department buys commercial satellite capacity to support military operations around the world. In adherence to a 2010 National Space Policy directive to rely on commercial space services as often as possible, the Pentagon has investigated new ways of buying satellite capacity but not yet implemented them.

Satellite operator Intelsat of Luxembourg may have started a trend in 2009 when it struck a deal to lease a 20-channel ultra-high frequency (UHF) payload on one of its upcoming satellites to the Australian military for 15 years at a cost of $167 million. The U.S. Defense Department subsequently arranged to use some of the Australian capacity in exchange for Australian access to the U.S. Navy’s Mobile User Objective System satellite fleet set to begin launching in 2012.

Intelsat announced last year it would add an identical UHF payload to its IS-27 satellite planned for launch in late 2012 to an orbital slot over the Atlantic Ocean. The company hopes to provide this capacity to the Navy, which faces a gap in UHF coverage as its aging UHF Follow-On satellites continue to degrade on orbit.

The Navy has not agreed yet to buy any of this UHF capacity, but it has multiple options should it choose to do so, said Richard DalBello, vice president of legal and government affairs for Intelsat General Corp., Intelsat’s Bethesda, Md.-based subsidiary that sells to the U.S. government.

If the Navy decides not to buy the capacity, many U.S. allies have expressed interest, DalBello said in a July 11 interview.

Perhaps the most simple and cost effective arrangement for the Navy would be to purchase the payload outright, DalBello said. The Navy also could lease any number of channels on the payload for any amount of time. This approach would require Intelsat to obtain two IS-27 licenses from the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC), one to operate in commercial C- and Ku-band frequencies and one to operate in UHF, a dedicated military frequency. The company submitted the first drafts of both license requests June 10, approval of which typically takes four to six months, DalBello said.

The license to operate the UHF payload will have to pass muster with several government agencies, including the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, a Commerce Department office responsible for federal radio frequency spectrum policy.

The Pentagon also will have a say in the matter. The Office of the Assistant Secretary for Network Integration and Information had historically managed spectrum issues for the Pentagon, but the office was dissolved in June and that responsibility is being transferred to the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics.

Pentagon spokeswoman Cheryl Irwin did not respond by press time to inquiries about its support for commercial firms seeking licenses to operate in military frequencies.

Meanwhile, London-based satellite operator Inmarsat announced last year it would invest $1.2 billion to build and launch three large Ka-band satellites, a significant departure from the company’s L-band heritage. These satellites, collectively known as Global Xpress, are planned to launch in 2013 and 2014 and will provide global coverage excluding the polar regions.

The Global Xpress satellites will each carry a commercial Ka-band payload and a high-capacity payload that can be toggled back and forth between commercial Ka-band and military Ka-band frequencies, said Rebecca Cowen-Hirsch, president of Washington-based Inmarsat subsidiary Inmarsat Government Services. The company hopes the Pentagon will consider Global Xpress as a supplement to its own Wideband Global Satcom fleet of satellites, three of which are now on orbit.

“It is not our intent to commercialize the military Ka frequency band or reallocate it for commercial use,” Cowen-Hirsch said.

Inmarsat has filed applications with the British government to operate the satellites’ commercial payloads. There are multiple options for licensing the military Ka-band payload, and the company has requested support from the Defense Department, which so far has not acted to get the licensing process moving, Cowen-Hirsch said.

“We can proceed a number of different ways,” she said. “Inmarsat could do the military filings through a foreign government, or the U.S. government can do the military filings to maintain the existing spectrum allocation and control. Without changing their policy and practice, it would be easiest for the U.S. government to do filings for their own potential use.”

Inmarsat is a wholesaler that sells its capacity through a network of distribution partners. Cowen-Hirsch said Inmarsat’s direct discussions with end-user communities including U.S. Strategic Command indicate a great deal of interest in using the military Ka-band capacity Global Xpress will provide.

“While no contractual arrangement is in place in advance of our launch, indications are very favorable that there will be take-up of this system when it becomes available in 2013 and then globally in 2014,” she said.

One new opportunity Inmarsat is eyeing is the Defense Information Systems Agency’s Assured Satcom Services in Single Theater program. The agency is seeking $500 million in 2012 to lease Ku- and Ka-band capacity over the Middle East for a period of up to 15 years. A single Global Xpress high-capacity payload could meet all of the Ka-band requirements for the program, Cowen-Hirsch said. It remains to be seen whether Congress funds the initiative next year.