The development of global maritime radiocommunications and radionavigation has been an area of work for ITU for more than 110 years. Invented in 1896, wireless telegraphy, as the first type of radiocommunications, was brought into use over a very short period, firstly for maritime safety.
In radionavigation, ITU has contributed to key developments in terrestrial radio navigation systems, including maritime radio beacons and terrestrial positioning systems in the medium frequency (MF) bands.
ITU Radiocommunication Sector (ITU-R) manages radio-frequency spectrum for all radiocommunication services worldwide, including maritime radiocommunication and radionavigation. The protection of maritime radiocommunication and navigation frequencies is ensured through special provisions in the Radio Regulations (RR). The RR are based on compatibility studies between maritime and other radiocommunication services. The worldwide usage of maritime equipment and its global interoperability are supported by ITU recommendations, serving as technical standards, and reports.
About 25% of the articles in the Radio Regulations govern the use of maritime radio, contributing to safety at sea. For example, by international agreement, Cospas-Sarsat distress transmissions from emergency radio beacons take place on a globally recognized frequency that is protected from any interference. In addition, ITU's special radio monitoring programme of this band is aimed at ensuring the availability of this important frequency for use by Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons (EPIRB) to transmit distress alerts.
The next update to the Radio Regulations will take place at the
World Radiocommunication Conference 2019 (WRC-19) in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, 28 October to 22 November 2019. The WRC-19 agenda contains several items relating to maritime activities:
- Agenda Item 1.9.1 addresses the designation and identification of autonomous maritime radio devices (AMRDs). There is a need to categorize and regulate the usage of these devices in order to enhance safety of navigation;
- Agenda item 1.9.2 addresses the provision of an additional satellite component for a new communication system, the VHF Data Exchange System (VDES), which may support a future e-navigation system for shipping. VDES satellite component would offer additional communications in polar regions and remote areas, including broadband communications transmission of Maritime Safety Information, updating and monitoring of onboard systems;
Agenda item 1.8 addresses the modernization of the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System
(GMDSS), with the introduction of a new digital high-speed Navigational Data (NAVDAT) system
and a new satellite GMDSS provider
that uses non-geostationary satellites.
Global Automatic Identification System (AIS)
ITU and the International Maritime Organization (IMO) introduced the global automatic identification system (AIS). It improves the safety of navigation and monitoring of shipping worldwide. AIS radio equipment is mandatory onboard all commercial ships on international voyages and contributes on a daily basis to the safety and monitoring of ships worldwide. ITU-R developed the
basic technical document for the AIS system worldwide.
Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS)
The Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS) is an internationally agreed set of safety procedures, frequencies, types of equipment, and communication protocols, developed through cooperation between IMO and ITU since the mid-1970s. It operates using terrestrial and satellite radio technologies onboard ships and onshore, making it easier to rescue distressed persons, ships, boats and aircraft. The system alerts shore-based rescue and communication personnel via the coast radio station or Rescue Coordination Centres (RCC) in cases of distress and emergency, and makes calls to vessels in the vicinity to provide assistance.
Maritime Service Publications and the MARS database
ITU helps improve ships' operational safety through a number of key publications and the Maritime mobile Access and Retrieval System (MARS) database.This is an online maritime database system with access to detailed information about onboard radio communication systems, including emergency contacts, 24-hour emergency phone numbers and onboard satellite terminal numbers, radio call signs and access codes such as the Maritime Mobile Service Identity (MMSI), call signs and telex identities.
This database and
website lists registered ships, coast and other stations, including Search and Rescue (SAR) Aircraft or Automatic Identification System AIS Aid to Navigation (AtoN) for shipping and shore authorities worldwide. For coast stations and Rescue Coordination Centres, it is easy to find their characteristics such as watch frequencies, services covered such as medical advice and hours of watch.
International technical standards
ITU issues international technical standards, developed by experts from administrations, operators, the industry and other organizations dealing with radiocommunication matters from all over the world. For example, a key standard is digital switchover of maritime communication (Rec. ITU-R
Learn more about ITU's role here.
Last update: September 2019