With the U.S. military worried about a potential shortage of mobile satellite communications capacity near the end of the decade, commercial service providers are positioning themselves to capture some of the resulting overflow.

Many of these same providers also anticipate a rise in government demand for their services in the wake of the recent U.S. hurricane relief efforts.

The specter of gap in coverage between the U.S. Navy’s current UHF Follow-On (UFO) satellites and the next-generation Mobile User Objective System (MUOS) arose in June following the failure of the UFO F3 spacecraft. With the loss of that satellite, the Pentagon expects a drop below its 70-percent comfort level in the likelihood of having eight UFO satellites on orbit when the Navy begins launching the MUOS satellites in 2010.

The MUOS satellites originally were scheduled to begin launching in 2007. While the initial launch date has been pushed back, work has remained on track since the service awarded Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Sunnyvale, Calif., a $2.1 billion contract last autumn to begin building the first two satellites , Len Kwiatkowski, the firm’s vice president and general manager of military space programs, said in an Oct. 26 news release.

Commercial satellite operators say they are prepared to help offset any shortfall that arises before the MUOS system comes on line.

J.J. Shaw, director of Naval programs for Inmarsat‘s government solutions division in Arlington, Va., said the company is rolling out its new Broadband Global Area Network in November, which will be compatible with terminals that users can put together with antennas that weigh less than 2.3 kilograms. The antennas are designed to be connected to laptop computers loaded with special communications software , making for a package that will be relatively easy for deployed troops to carry, he said.

Scott Scheimreif, assistant vice president for government and defense services at Iridium Satellite LLC of Bethesda, Md., said his company is working to modify its network through an initiative with the Marine Corps to enable more users to plug into the service.

This could enable a more than 10-fold increase in the number of tactical networks troops can set up on the battlefield, Scheimreif said.

This capability could be widely fielded by late 2007, and could help “substantially” fill a possible gap between the UFO and MUOS systems, Scheimreif said.

Iridium completed the final year of a five-year Pentagon contract worth $45 million annually Oct. 5, and is negotiating a follow-on deal while operating under an extension, Scheimreif said. The company has 66 satellites in low Earth orbit that are expected to last through 2014, and may begin launching a small number of replenishment satellites each year beginning around 2013, he said.

Tony Navarra, president of San Jose, Calif.-based Globalstar , said that company anticipates considerable growth in government business as the military seeks to augment its mobile communications coverage before MUOS comes on line and as disaster relief agencies seek to beef up their communications capabilities . Like Iridium, Globalstar operates a low Earth-orbiting satellite constellation that provides mobile telephony and other services.

About 3 percent of Globalstar’s business today comes from the government, but that figure is likely to rise to roughly 10 percent within the next year, Navarra said.

The value of satellite phones in the absence of an operational terrestrial communications infrastructure for homeland security purposes was demonstrated clearly during the recent hurricane relief efforts along the U.S. Gulf Coast, Navarra said. Ground-based communications networks were knocked out for days by Hurricane Katrina.