An overview of maritime communication regulation

Malcolm Latarche
Malcolm Latarche

10 July 2019

An overview of maritime communication regulation

In an era of almost instantaneous communications, few modern ship operators or others connected with shipping will fully appreciate the limitations that existed even 20 years ago before the Global Maritime Distress & Safety System (GMDSS) altered forever the field of marine communications. 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 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 finally operator certification covered by STCW. To these can also be added any regulation imposed by the flag state or restrictions imposed by a port state when a vessel is in territorial waters.

The carriage requirements are in force as far as SOLAS is concerned purely for safety and search and rescue and security requirements. The commercial aspect of communications is for the shipowner to decide, providing the rules for licensing and accounting are complied with. There is no given right for seafarers to have access to communications which remain at the shipowners’ discretion and company welfare philosophy.

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 and GPS as well as 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.

The rules of the ITU 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.