Maritime future needs | ACMA

Maritime future needs

This article is taken from the ACMA's Five-year Spectrum Outlook 2013-2017, published in September 2013. 

The Five-year spectrum outlook 2013–2017  is available for download as an e-mag, PDF and word document here. The Table of contents and links to individual sections of the report are available here.

The maritime mobile service (MMS) forms an important part of Australia’s radiocommunications infrastructure.[1] A wide range of organisations and individuals use the spectrum allocated to the MMS including:

> the Royal Australian Navy

> the Royal Life Saving Society

> search and rescue (SAR) organisations

> maritime rescue stations

> commercial shipping

> recreational boating

> the fishing industry.

In addition to its usual roles of spectrum management and interference investigation, the ACMA also assists Australian Search and Rescue (AusSAR) in locating emergency position indicating radio beacons (EPIRBs).

Just as for the aeronautical service, the international nature of maritime operations means that Australian allocations are consistent with harmonised ITU allocations to the maritime mobile service, with much of the planning work being driven and overseen by the International Maritime Organisation (IMO). The IMO is responsible for ensuring the safety and security of shipping activities.

5.5.1  Current spectrum use

The majority of spectrum usage in the maritime mobile service occurs in the HF and VHF maritime mobile bands. Above these bands, there is only one maritime mobile allocation for six frequencies, which are used for on-board communications[2]. There are also several maritime mobile bands in the VLF to MF spectrum, with the most significant of these being the MF bands 415–526.5 kHz and 2000–2495 kHz. In Australia, GMDSS DSC, radiotelephony and NBDP services are provided on 4, 6, 8, and 12 MHz. In addition, the maritime community is provided with weather-related broadcasts on 2 MHz by the Bureau of Meteorology from Wiluna (WA) and Charleville (QLD).

The maritime industry also makes use of Maritime-Mobile Satellite Service (MMSS) and Mobile-Satellite Service (MSS) systems for safety applications (such as the satellite component of GMDSS and the 406 MHz Cospas-Sarsat distress beacon system), and non-safety applications such as a ship’s business and crew communications. The radiodetermination service is also used for systems such as radar and racons. This is discussed further in section 5.6.

HF maritime mobile bands

Appendix 17 of the ITU Radio Regulations specifies the frequencies allocated to the maritime mobile service in the HF bands. Currently, there are eight HF maritime mobile bands, ranging from 4 MHz to 26 MHz. Australia also allocates the 27.5–28 MHz band for maritime use. WRC-12 made operational changes to maritime services, with no change to services currently allocated under Appendix 17.

Appendix 17 allocates channels in the HF bands for transmissions using:

> radiotelephony (voice communications)

> Morse telegraphy

> narrowband direct printing (NBDP)

> wideband and direct printing telegraphy, facsimile and data transmission

> digital selective calling (DSC).

Radiotelephony, NBDP and DSC can all be used in distress situations, on designated channels specified in Appendix 15. A few radiotelephony and NBDP channels are also designated for the transmission of maritime safety information (MSI). In Australia the state and territory governments operate a safety communications service that includes a listening watch on 4, 6 and 8 MHz distress frequencies and the broadcast of MSI on 8176 kHz. The telegraphy and data channels are mainly used by Defence in Australia for both command and control via formal messaging and for tactical data beyond LOS communications.[3]

VHF maritime mobile band

Appendix 18 of the ITU Radio Regulations specifies the frequencies of the VHF maritime mobile band (59 channels in the range 156162 MHz). Currently, two channels in this band (161.975 MHz and 162.025 MHz) are reserved for use by the automatic identification system (AIS), which is required by the IMO to be fitted on all cargo ships over 300 gross tonnage (GT) on international voyages, cargo ships of over 500 GT not on international voyages, and all passenger vessels.[4] Amendments to the Radio Regulations at WRC-12 include elevation of these AIS channels to primary status.

The National Standard for commercial vessels (NSCV) now includes carriage requirements for AIS for most commercial vessels in most operational areas.[5] AIS is increasingly being fitted to small recreational vessels for safety purposes.

The Radiocommunications Licence Conditions (Maritime Coast Licence) Determination 2002, Radiocommunications Licence Conditions (Maritime Ship Licence) Determination 2002[6] and the Radiocommunications (Maritime Ship Station – 27 MHz and VHF) Class Licence 2001 specify the permitted uses and conditions applicable to the use of VHF maritime mobile spectrum in Australia.

5.5.2   2013–2017

Issues affecting spectrum demand

Consultation with AMSA has indicated that current maritime spectrum arrangements are largely sufficient to meet the requirements of existing applications and technologies. There appears to be no shortage of spectrum for distress communications and provisions for NBDP are adequate.


Interference poses a threat to all radiocommunications services, but the impact of malicious and illegal operations and poor radio equipment are becoming important considerations for the ACMA, particularly in the VHF band. There is also concern about interference to HF DSC from overseas stations. As aural telephony distress alerts are replaced with automated DSC alerts, this raises an additional risk that undecoded interference may go unnoticed, preventing the reception of distress alerts. There is also a continuing problem of interference in the 406–406.1 MHz band from overseas interferers in the Asia-pacific region. The band is used by the Cospas-Sarsat distress beacon system.

Digital technologies

The safety of life nature of maritime mobile communications makes it important to have numerous communications technologies providing redundancy in the case of emergencies. The transition of large trading vessels to the GMDSS was completed on 1 February 1999 after a seven-year phase-in period. The transition to the GMDSS by the non-SOLAS sector has been slow. However, the deployment of VHF DSC transceivers (including fixed and handheld devices) is increasing. A major consideration is to maintain a communications environment that will continue to accommodate non-SOLAS vessels and support interoperability with SOLAS vessels.

The ITU has specified the need to enhance spectrum efficiency with the use of new digital technology in order for both the HF and VHF maritime mobile bands to better respond to future spectrum demand.[7] Digital HF technologies have already been developed and are in use.

It is likely that in the long term, NBDP may be replaced by more advanced digital HF data exchange technologies, for which the IMO considers it important to identify additional spectrum allocations for the future, particularly in the range 9–18 MHz.[8]

Changes were made to Appendix 17 at WRC-12. Agenda item 1.9 revised the frequencies and channelling arrangements of Appendix 17 to accommodate new digital technologies for the maritime mobile service. Several administrations have proposed using channels allocated to NBDP transmission to accommodate digital data systems, but some NBDP allocations (at least those for MSI and distress and safety communications) may need to be preserved globally for some years due to the unavailability of satellite-based alternatives in polar regions.

While digital HF data transfer protocols using 3 kHz channel widths have been proposed, additional spectrum may be required if the potential advent of higher speed services (akin to email) are implemented. However, the use of commercial and personal HF data services may be declining (certainly those using NBDP) due to an increasing preference for satellite-based solutions. Changes to Appendix 17 at WRC-12 included provisions to aggregate multiple contiguous channels for the provision of higher data rate digital systems (Recommendation ITU-R M.1798 caters for systems capable of 20kbps).

The amendments to Appendix 17 retained GMDSS NBDP channels, as well as a number of NBDP channels for non-GMDSS use. In Australia, these non-GMDSS NBDP channels are only used with civilian coast stations for distress purposes. There may be pressure to remove NBDP use within the GMDSS in sea area A3 as part of the ongoing Review and Modernization of the GMDSS.[9] WRC-15 Agenda item 1.16 in part is working to enhance AIS technologies as well as other means of enhancing maritime communications, particularly in the polar regions. This work may result in additional data services on HF and the maritime/mobile-satellite service.

Security, safety, tracking and surveillance

The increasing need for systems enhancing ship identification, tracking and surveillance, as well as ship and port security and safety, is an issue that was addressed under Agenda item 1.10 at WRC-12. The frequency band 495–505 kHz is now allocated to the maritime mobile service on a global basis. Recommendation ITU-R M.2010 describes the characteristics of the Navigational Data (NAVDAT) system operating in the 500 kHz band. It is expected that the IMO will consider this technology for e-Navigation, and a potential replacement of MF NAVTEX currently operating on 490 kHz and 518 kHz.

VHF communications

The possible reduction in channel spacing, combined with the overall reduction of Australian maritime coast stations over the past eight years, suggests that spectrum demand will not exceed current VHF maritime mobile allocations in the 2013–2017 time frame.

Despite this, there are some service degradation concerns for the VHF maritime mobile bands with regard to inappropriate use of the international distress, safety and calling channel 16. The usability of the band may degrade further in the future due to the low cost and class licensing of VHF equipment, which could make detecting the source of misuse difficult.

WRC-12 identified a number of additional simplex channels in Appendix 18 of the ITU Radio Regulations. However, it is expected that it will take a number of years for industry, including manufacturers and standards bodies, to implement the new channel plan.

5.5.3   The ACMA’s proposed approaches

Digital technologies

The introduction of a new digital HF data exchange technology will increase spectrum efficiency. However, it may also present an opportunity to implement higher data rate services, which could require additional spectrum. On the other hand, channels for NBDP are not heavily utilised at present (supported by discussions at WRC-03 and WRC-07) and HF data services for commercial and personal purposes are becoming less attractive in comparison to satellite-based solutions.

If required, the ACMA will update the maritime licence conditions determinations and class licences in response to changes made to Appendix 17 of the ITU Radio Regulations as a result of WRC-12. The ACMA will consider possible frequencies that would be suitable for use or, conversely, which frequencies would be undesirable for Australian users.

VHF communications

In September 2012, the ACMA released a paper detailing the outcomes of the review of VHF marine radio operator qualification arrangements. One of the key outcomes was that the ACMA will coordinate development and implementation of the Australian Waters Qualification (AWQ), which will become the new mandatory qualification for recreational boaters using VHF marine radio channels within Australian territorial waters.

5.5.4   WRC-15 Agenda items

The following WRC-15 Agenda items are relevant to the maritime mobile service:

Agenda item 1.15—to consider spectrum demands for on-board communication stations in the maritime mobile service in accordance with Resolution 358 [COM6/3] (WRC-12).

Agenda item 1.16—to consider regulatory provisions and spectrum allocations to enable possible new Automatic Identification System (AIS) technology applications and possible new applications to improve maritime radiocommunication in accordance with Resolution 360 [COM6/21] (WRC-12).

5.5.5   Beyond 2017

Growth in spectrum usage

While the ACMA expects no additional spectrum requirements for the maritime mobile service, current growth in the number of apparatus-licensed coast stations operating HF data services suggests that additional spectrum may be required in the 4, 6, 8, 12 and 18/19 MHz bands by 2023.

Digital technologies

The ACMA will continue to monitor the progress of HF data services and relevant technological developments and will assess options for planning arrangements when more is known about spectrum requirements.


Additional spectrum may be needed for a proposed strategy known as e-Navigation. Current maritime mobile bands, especially the HF and VHF bands and UHF satellite frequencies, are expected to play a major part in e-Navigation. Other bands, such as MF (495–505 kHz) and SHF satellite frequencies, may also form part of the e-Navigation concept.

e-Navigation is intended to provide a globally harmonised system for navigation and related services using a wide variety of current and emerging technologies, enabling the transmission, processing and display of navigational information to increase the level of safety and efficiency of maritime voyages. Information will be transmitted to and from coast stations and to other ships for efficient vessel tracking and management.

e-Navigation is envisioned to provide global communications via satellite and terrestrial networks. Based on those of similar broadband navigation systems and systems recognised for high bandwidth use of the VHF maritime mobile band, its VHF spectrum requirements could be in the vicinity of 150 kHz.

[1] In this Outlook, the maritime mobile-satellite service is included in the satellite service section, and the maritime radionavigation service is included in the radiodetermination service section.

[2] WRC-15 agenda item 1.15 is currently investigating whether more channels are required for on-board communications.

[3] Telegraphy involves the transmission of low-rate data and text messages for both distress situations and working for commercial and non-commercial operations.

[4] AIS provides information about the ship (including identity, type, position, course and speed) to other ships and coastal authorities.

[5] Further information can be found on the NMSC website at

[6] See Radiocommunications Licence Conditions (Maritime Coast Licence) Determination 2002, and Radiocommunications Licence Conditions (Maritime Ship Licence) Determination 2002,

[7] ITU Radio Regulations, Resolutions 342 and 351.

[8] International Maritime Organisation, IMO position on WRC-12 agenda items concerning matters relating to maritime services, 2011.

[9] There are four sea areas as defined by SOLAS: A1, A2, A3 and A4.

Last updated: 10 May 2017