A question from a Marine Electronics Reviews reader about radio channels in the UK and Europe prompted me to contact Raymarine Marketing Manager, Jim McGowan, for more information.
Raymarine is based in the UK and is very familiar with the variations in regulatory requirements, channeling, and operation that a vessel operator could encounter either visiting or living somewhere other than in the US. where I do all of my work and testing.
Worldwide Marine Radio Distribution
As a worldwide seller of marine VHF products, Raymarine actually offer radios tailored to the specific markets they are being sold into. Marine VHF radios, probably more so than any other marine electronics product, have to meet very specific requirements for each market into which they are being sold. The frequencies they work on change from market to market. Even the physical markings on the keys and key features of the radio vary from country to country. For example, our NOAA weather radio channels that we all use here in the USA, don’t exist at all in most other parts of the world.
More on Marine VHF Radios—US Marine VHF Radios
Every boat radio sold generally has at least 2 frequency plans built into it, one for home waters and one for international waters. On a US market marine VHF radio these 2 plans are often identified as “USA” and “International.”
Each nation is permitted to come up with their own frequency plan from their own territorial waters. On a VHF radio sold in the United States, this is normally identified as its “USA” mode. The US frequency plan is set up by the FCC and US Coast Guard.
More on Marine VHF Radios—Europe Only Feature
Raymarine and certain other brands of VHF radios built to European standards support a feature called Automatic Transmitter Identification System or ATIS, which doesn’t exist here in the US. On the European river system, in particular, ATIS is used to identify who is broadcasting using a digital packet burst sent on the end of every voice communication. ATIS is monitored by coast stations and traffic control centers to help maintain positive ID on all vessels transiting their area and to ensure the integrity of their communications. It works in place of DSC on these inland waterways.
More on Marine VHF Radios—Down Under Particulars
I had a question from a consumer who had purchased a used Pursuit fishing boat here in the US and then shipped it to Australia. He could hear other boaters on the VHF radio, but could never get a response from anybody. It turns out that his Ray218 VHF was a US-spec radio as the boat was originally sold new in the US. The US frequency plan is similar to Australia, but not identical.
Ultimately, he needed to get an Australia market marine VHF radio installed on his boat to solve the issue. Even though both the US and Australia models look the same, there are some hardware differences that impact channeling and also some of the radio features. In the end, it was illegal for him to use the US-spec radio there, as the boat was officially registered as an Australian vessel.
Foreign-flag vessels in transit, or visiting, are allowed to operate their own marine VHF equipment on a limited basis in other nation’s territorial waters. They may only do so however so as not to interfere with local radio users. Since his boat was to be a permanent resident, he was required to get a new radio installed.
National Marine VHF Frequency Planning
The territorial frequency plan for any nation takes into account other users of the electromagnetic spectrum and makes sure that marine users will not be interfering with them. Police, fire, military, aircraft, land-mobile, and other users must all fit into the national frequency plan somewhere. Because there are so many potential radio frequency spectrum users worldwide, it is practically impossible to standardize the territorial frequency plans worldwide.
For example, what is a US bridge-to-bridge channel, might very well be the Fire Department’s primary frequency in Japan or the Water and Sewer Departments walkie-talkie frequency in Brazil.
In the USA, there is very much a shortage of radio spectrum availability due to the high demand from mobile devices, TV, satellite, and thousands of other requirements. The switch from standard definition TV to HDTV was partially to alleviate some of this overcrowding. Shortly after the last of all US broadcasters switch to HD, their old frequencies will be split up and auctioned off by the FCC to other industries and users.
More on Marine VHF Radios—Open Ocean
To enable ships on the high seas to communicate regardless of nationality, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU, a branch of the United Nations) did establish a standard frequency plan for vessels outside of territorial waters. That plan is the International mode on US market VHF radios.
When you look at the US Coast Guards breakdown of the International VHF frequency plan, you’ll notice that many of the frequencies are in blue. These channels are not allowed to be used by marine users in US territorial waters because their frequencies are already allocated to other spectrum users. It highlights just how bad the spectrum problem is here in the US.
International Distress, Safety, and Calling Channel
The one channel in particular that is standardized worldwide is channel 16, which is the international Distress, Safety and Calling frequency. No matter whether you are on a USA or International Channel plan, or on the territorial marine plan of another nation, channel 16 is the same everywhere. That’s why vessels are required to monitor channel 16.
More on Marine VHF Radios—The UK
Your original reader question about using channel 37 in the UK needs a little background information to be provided. Channel 37 or the M1 frequency your reader is looking for is a UK territorial channel established for use by marinas. There are several “M” channels in the UK plan for this purpose. It is designated a “private” channel in the UK and it transmits and receives on 157.850 Mhz. That frequency is not identified on the USA territorial frequency plan at all, so most likely it is being used by some non-marine user here. Nor will you find this frequency listed in the ITUs international frequency plan. So even switching a US market radio into international mode would not help your reader.
If he is going to be cruising the UK extensively, it would probably be a good idea for him to purchase, rent, or even borrow at least a handheld UK market marine VHF radio for the duration of his visit. It will certainly make getting a hold of marinas there much, much easier.
More on Marine VHF Radios
Really, the bottom line for all of your readers is that there is a lot more on marine VHF radios than first meets the eye. In the past, everyone was required to have a VHF radiotelephone operator’s license at a minimum to use a marine VHF radio. However, this requirement was removed for domestic recreational boaters some time ago.
Even though the license is not necessarily a requirement anymore, boaters should definitely take the time to read the owners handbook for their particular marine VHF, and try to understand all of its features and functions. Not only will it make using the radio more enjoyable, it will also make sure they stay compliant with the law. If they are traveling out of US territorial waters it is important to know the local regulations prior to arrival.