Communications providers enhancing emergency calling services

Inmarsat is seeking the International Maritime Organization’s (IMO) approval to qualify its FleetBroadband service for Global Maritime Distress Safety System (GMDSS) certification. The service will replace Inmarsat B, the company’s long-in-the-tooth satellite data service, which will be discontinued by 2015.

FleetBroadband provides high-speed data and voice through a single antenna and works reliably from anywhere around the world except the extreme polar regions. The service is available in a number of different configurations and models from various manufacturers. Inmarsat wants GMDSS-certification for the largest terminal, the FleetBroadband 500.

But the company needs to first meet a few requirements, including priority calling and preemption, said Frank August, Inmarsat’s director of business development for the Americas.

“A distress call will have priority over someone making a regular call over the network, in both directions, ship-to-shore and shore-to-ship,†he said. “Inmarsat B provides this, but right now, a distress call on FleetBroadband looks like any other call.â€

Priority calling capability will be available on all FleetBroadband terminals by July 2011, August said.

But for GMDSS certification, the standards set by the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) also require that Inmarsat provide redundancy in the event of satellite network failure. Inmarsat B relies on the company’s newest satellites, the Inmarsat-4 network, but as a fallback can also work with the older Inmarsat-3 network. FleetBroadband, however, does not currently work with the older satellites.

“We need a little more time to straighten that out,†August said. “Redundancy is only as good as its weakest link.â€

He said the company is also working to meet additional GMDSS-certification requirements, including a process for retrofitting older FleetBroadband 500 terminals. For smaller vessels that don’t need GMDSS compliance, Inmarsat’s other terminals will provide all the same distress-calling capabilities by the middle of next year, except for satellite network redundancy.

Inmarsat was the only mobile satellite provider certified for GMDSS use until 2009, when amendments to the IMO’s certification process opened the door to other systems. Iridium, whose low Earth orbiting satellite network offers coverage even in the extreme polar regions, immediately signaled its intent to seek certification.

Liz DeCastro, Iridium’s director of corporate communications, said the company recently determined its systems already meet the majority of GMDSS requirements.

“With some development, we will be able to meet all requirements, including broadcast prioritization and pre-emption capabilities,†she said.

Inmarsat will pull the plug on its data-only B service, long the standard for GMDSS capability, on Dec. 31, 2014, citing decreased usage and newer technology.

“It’s well past its useful life,†August said. “It was the first digital service. It’s really done its job. In launching the Inmarsat-4 satellites, we’re able to use the satellite spectrum so much more effectively, increasing the speeds of data communication.â€

Last fall the company also launched a new service that lets mariners in distress reach the nearest Maritime Rescue Coordination Center from nearly anywhere in the world simply by dialing a three-digit emergency code through any FleetBroadband terminal. The 505 Emergency Calling service is named for the three-digit short code users dial, chosen for its similarity to SOS.

It’s not GMDSS-compliant, but is an easy, reliable means of emergency contact for smaller vessels. Joe Allen, a marine communications specialist who provides training services to the Maritime Institute of Technology & Graduate Studies in Maryland, said 505 calling offers several advantages over other emergency-calling systems, like VHF and terrestrial radio-based Digital Selective Calling.

“There’s more manual intervention required to use terrestrial radio components,†Allen said, especially high-frequency radio. “There’s a lot of controversy because of things like radio propagation conditions, so you need a more experienced operator to be effective.â€

In addition, high-frequency terrestrial radio is susceptible to climate interference and other disadvantages, and VHF radio is limited in range. Emergency radio signals often elicit responses from shore stations and other vessels, both nearby and elsewhere, which can diminish their effectiveness.

“With 505, you push the buttons and the connection is made,†Allen said.

By Professional Mariner Staff