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A new. less frantic future for VHF

Jan 1, 2003

A NEW, LESS FRANTIC FUTURE for VHF radio? Mariners may be experiencing less VHF radio traffic these days. The widespread use of cellular telephones and the allocation of a second hailing channel for non-emergency uses are two possible reasons. Of the two, however, it would appear that the cellular telephone rage is making the big difference. The introduction of a second hailing channel seems to have done more to create confusion within the maritime community than to impose order among the channels.

For several years, traffic on VHF radio has been decreasing, most probably due to increased use of cellular telephones. It is estimated that at least 25 percent of non-commercial vessels larger than 20 feet have cellular phones aboard while estimates for commercial vessels are as high as 75 percent.

Exact numbers are hard to come by since cellular telephones are unlicensed, mobile and do not need to be permanently installed in a boat or car. Kevin Fay, manager at Marine Electronics in Hartfield, Va., says electronics dealers are very aware of the widespread usage of cellular phones. "With just a cigarette lighter hook-up, nearly anyone can bring aboard a portable 'bag-phone' from their home or car, and they are doing this in great numbers," said Fay. Small craft operators can carry a cellular telephone in their pocket that is independent of any power source or antenna on a boat. Permanently-installed cellular phones have also become a fixture on most large yachts and commercial vessels.

Many mariners find it convenient to use cellular telephones for almost all communications with shore establishments, including home, office, marinas, chandleries, and dispatchers. Use of cellular phones for inter-vessel traffic is not as common, however.

Every cellular phone call made from a boat is one less hailing call made over VHF radio, communications observers say, and a high percentage of those calls are of the discretionary or convenience type of communication.

Cellular phones will never replace VHF radio, howeverat least not in the foreseeable future. VHF radio still has very strong appeal to mariners as a safety and emergency communication system, and it is the only guaranteed way to establish a link with another vessel or a shore station within appropriate range.

As for VHF radio, Coast Guard and FCC officials may have succeeded to some extent in lessening traffic volumes on channel 16 by the allocation of alternate channel 9 as a hailing channel. However, the rules for use of channel 9 have been so confusing from district to district and from one regulating authority to another as to create a state of radio mayhem among recreational users, particularly in the First Coast Guard District. (Commercial operators, who tend to stick with Channels 16, 13 and specialized channels, are not affected).

In several hours of telephone calls to Coast Guard and FCC officials recently, reporters in this office were unable to determine the precise rules regarding use of channels 16 and 9. What started out as a Coast Guard-mandated insistence that channel 16 be reserved only for emergency and distress calls appears to have been relaxed. FCC officials say their role has simply been to legalize the use of channel 9 as an acceptable hailing channel for non-commercial vessels and licensed shore stations. Nationwide, channel 9 is now approved as an optional hailing channel, but everywhere, including internationally, only channel 16 is recognized as an emergency channel. In the First Coast Guard District, which extends from New Jersey to Maine, many mariners continue to use channel 16 as their primary calling channel while others end up making hailing calls on both, never sure where to "find" their intended contacts.

"I just spent two weeks listening to everyone and his cousin using channel 16 on the Maine coast," said a yachtsman in August, "Everyone seems to be using 16 as a hailing channel, but I wouldn't say there was very much traffic at all. Most of the time the radio is silent."

The Coast Guard experiment with forcing traffic off of channel 16 began in Boston Harbor in 1992. In the year or so following, Coast Guard personnel would loudly announce over the radio that the use of channel 16 was reserved for emergency and distress use only. Coast Guard officials later said that channel 16 radio traffic decreased by nearly 50 percent. By the end of 1992 Coast Guard officials said that the program was being expanded nationwide but in other areas the use of channel 9 would be optional while calls to bridges and locks as well as emergency and distress calls must still be made on channel 16.

Whether or not channel 16 is still officially "reserved" in the First Coast Guard district depends on who one asks and where one is located. Whether or not Coast Guard officials are actively policing the channels seems to depend on location and time of year. As always, cold weather quickly puts an end to the yachting season shortly after Labor Day and problems relating to radio traffic quickly fade away.

Radio traffic may have peaked in Boston and New York, but mariners on Chesapeake Bay say they are sick of the congestion as well. "It's all very confusing," said a Baltimore yachtsman. "Channel 16 can be too much to even listen to. I tend to ignore it all and just use my cellular telephone.

"The thing that I keep wondering about," he added, "is what's going to happen if the Coast Guard chases everyone off of channel 16 and no one is left to monitor the recognized distress channel. A person can only monitor so many channels."