Ocean Navigator Communications Newsletter #21
Be Legal or Be Safe
Special Update - as of 9/30/05 -- Progress is made!!
Elaine Dickinson wrote:
The Task Force petitioned the FCC last year to begin collecting the full set of data for emergency contact, etc., which they were not previously collecting as part of the application for an FCC ship station license. Everyone realized this was not adequate to the MMSI SAR database kept by the Coast guard.
Now if you apply for an FCC license, you must request an MMSI and in doing so, you get an extra Form 605 Schedule B to fill out which captures all that extra information. This is an improvement and now the full set of personal and ship data should be going from the FCC to the USCG database.
We are also petitioning the FCC to accept the BoatU.S.-issued MMSI numbers into their FCC licensing application program so people do not have to get another MMSI when they later find they need a license, for instance, to travel internationally. The Task Force believes this is wasteful of otherwise useful, FCC-issued MMSI numbers, of which there will be a finite number. It’s also a hassle to have to reprogram your radio by sending it back to a dealer or factory because you’ve used up the two or three “free” tries to enter a number.
Someone going abroad and applying to FCC for a ship station license would need:
Form 605, Main Form for the station license good for 10 years - $205 fee
Also, I cannot say that Maritel is still issuing MMSIs. They don’t really have a staff any longer and I was under the impression that their MMSI program was halted. You might want to double check on that.
Follow me on a meandering tale of communications rulemaking gone awry. Hopefully, the acronyms GMDSS and DSC should be ringing some bells with regular readers by now. The Global Maritime Distress & Safety System (GMDSS) is an internationally agreed upon system of communication designed to facilitate safety at sea. GMDSS includes many different types of technology including Inmarsat, SSB, and digital selective calling (DSC).
A key component of the GMDSS is something called a maritime mobile service identifier or MMSI. This MMSI is uniquely assigned to a particular vessel and is permanently programmed into the vessel's communications equipment. If a distress call comes in to the Coast Guard, the vessel's MMSI number will be digitally transmitted along with the message. In the ideal world, the Coast Guard can then look up the MMSI, determine exactly which vessel is in distress, and who the owner is.
However, I've recently been reminded that we do not live in an ideal world.
Since around 1999, there has been a rapid proliferation of DSC capable VHF radios sold all around the world. In order to activate the DSC part of the radio, you'll need to program in your MMSI number. Initially, your MMSI had to be assigned by the FCC. Since the FCC was overwhelmed by MMSI requests, they cut a deal allowing BoatUS (and later SeaTow and MariTel) to issue MMSI numbers for domestic vessels.
So far, so good.
Then somewhere along the line, the US Coast Guard indicated that it would be incredibly helpful to their search and rescue operations if the database of MMSI numbers, vessels, and owners also included some descriptive information and emergency contact telephone numbers. They pitched this idea to the international community, and the idea was adopted by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) in November of 1999.
This prompted the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) to enlarge their database to accommodate this new information including vessel description and emergency contacts. BoatUS, SeaTel and MariTel followed suit. Herein lies the rub.
For a vessel operating in domestic waters, not otherwise required to carry a VHF ship station license, an MMSI can be obtained from BoatUS, SeaTel or MariTel who will collect the full suite of descriptive information and emergency contact info and pass all of this information along to the US Coast Guard for inclusion in their database. This is good.
For a vessel operating internationally, an MMSI must be issued by the FCC. However, the FCC does not collect any additional descriptive information or emergency contact information for the vessel. Since the FCC doesn't collect this information, it never gets transmitted to the ITU's international database, and the Coast Guard then doesn't have access to this incredibly helpful information. It was never collected in the first place. This is not good.
The somewhat embarrassing part for the US is that the US Coast Guard spearheaded the plan to include this information, got the plan approved by the international community, and now one of the most flagrant violators is our own FCC. The Coast Guard, through its National GMDSS Implementation Task Force, has formally petitioned the FCC to collect and forward this additional information, but the FCC has been (very) slow to respond and still isn't accommodating the Coast Guard's request.
All this surfaced recently when my colleague, Tim Hasson, was corresponding with David B., a boater in Seattle who wanted to "upgrade" his domestic BoatUS issued MMSI to an internationally accepted FCC issued MMSI, but in doing so would lose the supplemental emergency contact information. His dilemma was - comply with the rules for international licensing OR Ocean Navigator Communications Newsletter #22
Black Box Radio: Hear the World From Your Desktop
The more I study marine communications, the more I'm convinced that it's a Really Good Idea to have a single sideband radio onboard for any offshore passage. There are a number of reasons why I believe this to be true, and I'll save them all for a future newsletter. For now, I'll write about a stepping stone that you might consider on the path towards SSB ownership.
For those who aren't quite ready to dive into the investment for a full-blown SSB radio right away consider getting a SSB receiver. A receiver is basically the "listening" part of a radio without the "talking" part. So you can tune into your favorite channel and hear the transmissions from others, but you can't talk back.
The good news about these receivers is that they're cheap compared to the price of a transceiver (which allows you to both listen and talk). For a few hundred dollars you can outfit yourself with a good quality table top receiver that will allow you to get used to working the airwaves. No license is required - simply buy a receiver, plug it in and start listening.
Many shortwave or HF receivers will do the job just fine, even if they're not specifically labelled "for marine use" or made by a company that you recognize from the marine industry. Just make sure the receiver is capable of handling a broad range of frequencies (most will go from around 20 kHz to 30,000 kHz or more) and that it's capable of tuning into single sideband (SSB) or upper sideband (USB) transmissions.
Some popular receivers you're likely to come across are Si-Tex's NavFax 200, and Grundig's YachtBoy. Other great receivers are made by Yaesu, Sony, Icom, and Palstar. Some of the more advanced receivers in this group can be (optionally) controlled by a computer. This is handy for setting up a complex group of scanning channels or scheduling certain channels to be tuned in at certain times.
For something a little different, consider the PCR-1000 - a black box SSB receiver from Icom. With a list price of $449 and a street price of around $400. The PCR-1000 is about the size of a paperback book, and it has no dials or knobs, and only one switch. You can switch it on or you can switch it off. That's it. Everything else is controlled by your computer (yes you need a computer in order to work this receiver). The PC-controlled radio is controlled by a serial cable (provided) and software (provided) that mimics on your computer screen the radio dials you'd expect to find on the radio. You'll need to plug it into the wall with the AC adapter (provided) or you can wire up your own 12 V DC supply. As with many other receivers, it comes with a puny little antenna that works OK for home use, but you might want to upgrade to a better antenna -- check with your local Ham or SSB guru for choices.
So, while it's not a substitute for getting yourself equipped with an SSB transceiver, getting a receiver is a great way to get familiar with the chatter on the airwaves and the other good stuff that's available in the radio world. With this (or any other SSB receiver), you'll be able to
Among its advantages, it offers lots of bang for your buck and is a great learning tool for folks who want to get their feet wet with SSB reception at home before trying to deal with it aboard. In addition to all the marine bands, you can also eavesdrop on amateur frequencies, aviation frequencies and even some public safety transmissions (police, fire, etc.) Once you get ready to untie the docklines and head off into the wild blue yonder, grab your receiver to use as a backup in case the SSB radio on the boat decides to fail.
However - it does have some serious drawbacks for marine use. Two big ones stick out in my mind. At the risk of being redundant -- it's a receive-only unit. You cannot transmit, you cannot send a mayday call, you cannot communicate with other vessels, and you cannot actively participate in any cruising nets. The other big drawback unique to the PCR-1000 is that if your computer dies, so does your radio. Without a computer attached to control it, the PCR-1000 is about as useful as a paperweight.
If you know a local ham or SSB guru, chances are that they first got their start in the radio world with a small, inexpesive receiver and then worked their way up from there. So pick up a receiver and start eavesdropping on your neighbors!
Keep in touch.
- Dan Piltch
the additional safety information offered by the BoatUS issued MMSI. Be legal or be safe? Which would you choose?
See more detailed information at http://www.navcen.uscg.gov/marcomms/gmdss/petition.htm
Maybe in a future issue we'll deal with the fact that your VHF DSC distress call won't be heard by the Coast Guard until 2006.