Nowadays the maritime mobile service uses a wide range of sophisticated systems and communications technologies across the radio spectrum in order to support safe navigation, efficient maritime operations and commercial activities.

And the CEPT/ECC through its FM Maritime Forum Group (MARFG) works extensively on radiocommunications across a range of maritime applications, such as safety, security, containers and ships tracking, personal communications between the crew members, even entertainment on board, to ensure the systems and technologies continue to run smoothly. The group's reach also extends to inland waterways, achieving a real coordination between the two environments which seem different, but in practice are closely related.

However, the focus of this article is on the development and significant contribution of maritime communications in securing safety at sea for European citizens.

Safety of Life at Sea

Although mankind has been sailing in rivers and seas since time immemorial, maritime radiocommunications only started a hundred years ago, shortly after the invention of radio.

How it began...

By the beginning of the 20th century, the increasing number of accidents at sea showed the importance of using radio for saving lives. The most famous of these occurred on 14th April 1912 when the super passenger ship TITANIC (the "Unsinkable") sank with the loss of more than 1500 lives. Although 700 people were saved after the CARPATHIA received the TITANIC's distress message, the number of lives saved could have been greater if the CALIFORNIAN, which was a relatively short distance away from the scene, had also received it. Regrettably, its radio officer was off duty at that time.

Three months later an international radio conference was held in London and adopted the first version of the 'Safety of Life at Sea' (SOLAS) convention. Although it was decided that the installation of on board radio equipment should not be mandatory for all ships, the conference prescribed numbers of lifeboats and other emergency equipment along with safety procedures, including continuous radio watches.

The conference also adopted the now well-known letters "SOS" as the international distress call (instead of the previously used "CQD"). Contrary to a popular myth, "SOS" is not an abbreviation for "Save Our Souls" and has no special meaning other than that the now familiar "...---..." signal is deemed to be easy to remember to transmit in Morse Code. It's also interesting to note that the famous "Mayday" distress call used in radiotelephony derives from the French word "M'AIDER" which simply means "help me".

So the TITANIC disaster was of enormous importance in fostering the creation of international regulations for maritime radiocommunications, mainly to safeguard future sea voyages. Indeed, for a long time much of the international Radio Regulations were concerned with maritime radio.

International maritime radio regulations and GMDSS

In addition to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and its Radio Regulations a new international body, the International Maritime Organization (IMO), was established in 1948. It came into force ten years later with responsibility for developing international regulations for the shipping industry, particularly with regard to safety at sea.

Since then both ITU and IMO, two UN organisations where almost all UN members are represented, have been constantly enhancing their regulations and other guidance documents in order to respond to the growing demands of maritime safety, navigation and commercial equipment on the market. These developments have led to the establishment of the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS), an internationally agreed framework covering safety procedures, types of equipment, and communication protocols used to increase safety and make it easier to rescue distressed ships and persons at sea.

The World Radiocommunication Conference in 2007 confirmed that the GMDSS was "de facto" the only truly international distress and safety system. This framework is described within the ITU Radio Regulations.

The old maritime distress and safety system was based on the premise that ships, when at sea, keep a continuous radio watch on the international distress frequencies (500 kHz) dedicated worldwide to distress communications in accordance with the ITU Radio Regulations and carry on board radio equipment capable of transmitting distress messages on the same channels. That system was primarily focused on ship-to-ship operations. The fundamental difference between the old (500 kHz) system and the new (GMDSS) system is that the new one is shore focused and coordinated, changing the emphasis from ship-to-ship alerting to ship-to-shore alerting. The GMDSS is specifically designed to automate a ship's radio distress alerting function, and consequently, remove the requirement for human watch-keeping on distress channels.

GMDSS is intended to perform 9 functions from which several are as follows: alerting (including position determination of the unit in distress), search and rescue coordination, locating (homing), maritime safety information broadcasts, general communications, and bridge-to-bridge communications. Specific radio carriage requirements depend upon the ship's area of operation. The system also provides duplication of distress alerting equipment, and emergency sources of power.

Recreational vessels do not need to comply with GMDSS radio carriage requirements, but will increasingly use the Digital Selective Calling (DSC) VHF radios. Vessels under 300 gross tonnage are not subject to GMDSS requirements.

European maritime regulators cooperate within CEPT

Since the early 90s, CEPT has also played an important role in maritime frequency regulation. Our responsibilities fall within three key areas: policymaking, technical studies and creating a forum for interaction between regulators and industry. And our FM Maritime Forum Group (MARFG), and its several predecessor groups, is widely known as the European centre of expertise in maritime radiocommunications not only within CEPT but well beyond. MARFG is responsible for maintaining ECC deliverables related to maritime issues. It is also a place for coordination of national positions in the preparation for ITU-R and IMO meetings. Membership in MARFG is open to both CEPT administrations and relevant maritime organisations and industry.

The group's contribution to the CEPT harmonisation process has been extensive and many deliverables have a strong record of national implementation. A few in particular in the area of operator certification are worthy of note¹: reminding us of where this all started 100 years ago.

MARFG also collects and makes available information through the ECO, such as on the use of 'Personal Locator Beacons' (PLB) in the European area.

The maritime group has been continuously looking for ways to move maritime communications further forward. Even in periods of economic difficulties new developments continue to demand our attention, such as the modernisation of the GMDSS, the implementation of the so-called "e-Navigation" concept, and developments related to the further improvement of the Automatic Identification System (AIS).

The generally increased demand for radio spectrum is both driven and to some extent addressed by the enormous technological advances in the public radiocommunications sector.

This means that CEPT's development of possibilities for allocation and sharing are well-informed by the expertise of its MARFG group. Spectrum used for maritime radiocommunications has to ensure a high level of safety of European citizens aboard both big cruise ships and recreational vessels. History has taught us that this should not be compromised.

Jaap Steenge,
Chairman of the FM Maritime Forum Group


¹ERC Decision (99)01 on the harmonised examination syllabus for the General Operator's Certificate (GOC) and the Restricted Operator's Certificate (ROC), (currently under revision) ERC Recommendation 31-04 establishing the harmonised examination syllabi for the Short Range Certificate (SRC) and for the Long Range Certificate (LRC), another ERC Recommendation 31-06 on the mutual recognition of the GOC and ROC certificates and the recently approved ECC Recommendation (10)03 defining the harmonised CEPT examination procedures for the LRC for NON-SOLAS vessels.

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