Emerging Trends
November 8, 2019

Maritime communications — safeguarding the spectrum for maritime services

By Kitack Lim, Secretary-General, International Maritime Organization (IMO)

*This article was originally published in the recent ITU News Magazine edition “Managing spectrum for evolving technologies.” Any views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of ITU.

The global economy relies on some 1.5 million seafarers who collectively ensure the delivery of 10.7 billion tons (and rising) of goods traded by sea on an annual basis. This includes vital commodities, the goods that people need as well as those they want.

From containerized finished goods and raw materials, to bulk dry cargos (including grains and minerals), to oil and gas, and refrigerated cargoes — more than 80% of world trade is carried by sea.

The maritime sector — a key player in achieving the SDGs

We must also consider the millions of passengers taking cruises and ferry crossings on passenger ships each year, whose safety must be guaranteed. In addition, the world relies on shipping for the sustainable future of the planet, and the maritime sector is a key player in supporting the achievement of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

For the shipping industry to function effectively, safely, sustainably and to protect the marine environment, communication systems are fundamental.

“Shipping relies on radio spectrum allocation for navigation, for distress and safety communication, for on board communication — and for social communication between crews and family and friends ashore.”

Therefore, as the United Nations specialized agency with the responsibility for developing and adopting the universal standards and guidance for safe, secure and efficient shipping, with a strong focus on protecting the environment, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) has a keen interest in the World Radiocommunication Conference 2019 (WRC-19).

Ensuring safety of life at sea

IMO’s International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) requires ships to carry specialized equipment for navigation and communication. The origins of these regulations can be traced back to the very first iteration of the SOLAS Convention adopted in 1914, in the wake of the Titanic disaster, which laid bare the need for distinct 24/7 maritime distress radiocommunications.

The links between IMO and ITU have now been cemented over many decades. The development of maritime radiocommunications needs to take into account the operational needs — as defined by IMO — and the regulatory needs — as defined by ITU.

IMO’s SOLAS chapter IV on Radiocommunications is fundamental to ensuring the safety of life at sea. It incorporates the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS), which was fully implemented in 1999.

The GMDSS today is an integrated communication system, mandating requirements for terrestrial and satellite technologies and shipboard radiocommunication systems. The aim is to ensure that no matter where an emergency at sea occurs, a distress call can be sent out and shore-based rescue authorities alerted.

The development of the GMDSS followed on from the work initiated by IMO Member States in the 1960s to study operational requirements for a satellite system devoted to maritime purposes, and then in the 1970s the adoption of a convention establishing the International Maritime Satellite Organization (then called Inmarsat), under the auspices of IMO, to provide those satellite services.

Until now, Inmarsat has been the only operational GMDSS mobile satellite service provider, alongside Cospas-Sarsat, which is part of the GMDSS with respect to emergency position-indicating radio beacons (EPIRBs).

“IMO invites WRC-19 to regulate the use of frequencies and identities available for the maritime mobile service, for autonomous maritime radio devices which enhance the safety of navigation.”

Over the past few years, IMO has put arrangements in place to facilitate the introduction of additional GMDSS mobile satellite service providers, including the adoption of pertinent amendments to the SOLAS Convention. These amendments will enter into force on 1 January 2020.

IMO’s Maritime Safety Committee (MSC), the custodian of the SOLAS Convention, has also adopted a resolution to recognize the first additional maritime mobile satellite services provider, Iridium Satellite LLC.

In parallel with those developments and as instructed by the last WRC conference (WRC-15), the ITU Radiocommunication Sector (ITU–R) has conducted studies to support the introduction of additional satellite systems into the GMDSS.

In this context, IMO invites WRC-19 to support the introduction of additional satellite systems into the GMDSS, by taking regulatory measures, by 1 January 2020, to ensure full protection and availability of the frequency bands to be used by recognized GMDSS satellite service providers for the provision of GMDSS services.

Increasing autonomous maritime radio devices

Another issue of interest to the maritime community will be considered at WRC-19, under the agenda item related to the frequency band 156–162.05 MHz for autonomous maritime radio devices to protect the GMDSS and automatic identifications system (AIS).

Increasing numbers of autonomous maritime radio devices that use AIS technology or digital selective calling (DSC) technology (or both) or transmit synthetic voice messages are being developed. Some are developed to enhance the safety of navigation — but others are not designed specifically for safety purposes.

IMO invites WRC-19 to regulate the use of frequencies and identities available for the maritime mobile service, for autonomous maritime radio devices which enhance the safety of navigation. Other arrangements should be considered for autonomous maritime radio devices which do not enhance the safety of navigation.

left-over from WRC-15 is the need for modification of the Radio Regulations to include new spectrum allocations to the maritime mobile-satellite service to enable a new very high frequency (VHF) data exchange system (VDES) satellite component. VDES will include data transmitted by automatic identification system (AIS), application specific messages (ASM) and VHF data exchange.

Under certain conditions, IMO supports the availability of VDES, including both terrestrial and satellite components.

Protecting the integrity of GMDSS at WRC-19

IMO strongly believes that the integrity of the GMDSS must be protected. The use of spectrum allocated to existing (and future) maritime services must, therefore, be safeguarded.

This plays a role in several of the agenda items to be considered by WRC-19. For example, in considering the frequency band 460–470 MHz, where this band is used by maritime mobile services for on-board communication stations.

When considering the spectrum needs for telemetry, tracking and command in the space operation service for non-GSO satellites, IMO urgently requests WRC-19 to avoid allocating spectrum, in particular in the frequency bands already in use by maritime services for safety of life services.

Maritime radiocommunication developments and WRC-23

In anticipation of future developments in maritime radiocommunications, IMO would like WRC-19 to ensure that the preliminary agenda for the next World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC-23) includes the consideration of maritime users.

Specifically, WRC-23 should include possible spectrum needs and regulatory actions to support GMDSS modernization and the implementation of e-navigation.

IMO looks forward to WRC-19 and to continue building on the long-established good collaboration with ITU.

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Maritime communications — safeguarding the spectrum for maritime services

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