FCC: Marine Radio Setup has Safety Implications

GMDSS console (file image courtesy Slawomirs / Creative Commons)

Published May 10, 2016 8:58 PM by The Maritime Executive

On Monday, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission issued a formal enforcement advisory to mariners regarding the setup of their AIS devices and their radio Digital Selective Calling (DSC) systems. Improper data in the setup of these two systems can compromise SAR efforts, resulting in some cases in misdirecting emergency responders and alerting the wrong emergency contacts, the FCC says. 

An AIS transponder broadcasts route, speed, heading, and ships' particulars, among other information; DSC refers to a format for sending digital messages via marine band MF/HF and VHF (GMDSS) equipment, including automatically formatted distress alerts. Both AIS and DSC include transmission of a vessel's MMSI number, which is used as a unique identifier for federal agencies, including the Coast Guard. The wrong MMSI may lead to false identification. 

Several common situations lead to improper MMSI data in radio setup, the agency said. First, if an owner decides to get an FCC-issued MMSI to replace a foreign-issued or agent-issued number, the owner must stop using the old number. Second, in the event that a vessel is sold or transferred, records associated with the MMSI (either through private  registration agent or FCC registration) must be updated with the new owner's information, including emergency contact. Third, buyers and sellers of used marine radios must make sure that they are using the correct MMSI – and must ensure that both parties don't end up using the same MMSI by mistake.

Lastly, AIS equipment is occasionally tested on land, often using a fabricated MMSI entry. The FCC warns that testing areas must be licensed, and can obtain their own specific MMSI for the purpose. 

The FCC warns that improper MMSI entries have safety and security implications – notably in regards to the Coast Guard’s maritime domain awareness for vessels approaching U.S. ports. Violations stemming from the use of inaccurate MMSIs are punishable by a fine of as much as $16,000 per instance, and may result in confiscation of radio equipment.