In an era of almost instantaneous communications, few modern ship operators or others connected with shipping will fully appreciate the limitations that existed before the Global Maritime Distress & Safety System (GMDSS) altered forever the field of marine communications in the 1990s. However, the basics of regulation were set down much earlier than that and still form the core framework of modern regulations. GMDSS is a subject on its own and is covered elsewhere in this guide.
Communications equipment and services on board vessels are internationally regulated under three separate areas: Carriage requirements are covered by SOLAS; the regulations governing the use of maritime radio as detailed in the International Radio Regulations, set by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU); and operator certification covered by STCW. To these can be added any regulation imposed by the flag state or restrictions imposed by a port state when a vessel is in territorial waters.
There is a very good reason why an international body such as the ITU is needed to govern the use of communications equipment. The spectrum in which radio communications operate is limited and with more and more demands made on it by increasing use of technologies such as mobile telephones, wi-fi, radio-controlled devices, GPS, radio and TV, the possibility for interference grows as well.
Interference can be a nuisance when it affects personal enjoyment of unessential services but if the system affected is one that is vital for safety or needed to operate production or control processes, then interference can have a much more damaging effect. For this reason, the frequencies on which different types of equipment are permitted to operate have been subject to international agreement managed by the ITU.
ITU’s rules are freely accessible from its website but are extensive and run into several volumes and thousands of pages. It is also not necessary to be fully conversant with all the rules but only those aspects that affect shipping such as licensing, accounting and use.
The main regulations affecting shipping can be found in Volume I of the Radio Regulations. Chapter VII covers GMDSS and Chapter IX most other aspects of marine communications, including licensing and operator certificate requirements. The latter are also covered in the STCW requirements for certain classes of navigating and deck officers.
It should be mentioned that SOLAS also regulates some other forms of communication such as light and sound signals.