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Use of mobile phones on ships in European waters - briefing

19 March 2010
by eub2 -- last modified 19 March 2010

The European Commission has adopted new rules to make it easier for passengers and crew on ships in the EU's territorial waters to make mobile phone calls or send and receive text messages when they are out of range of land-based mobile phone networks. The new rules harmonise the technical and legal conditions for on-board communication services and pave the way for innovative applications, such as remote monitoring of containers stored on-board. This brings new legal certainty and economic opportunities, for service providers who want to offer seamless maritime mobile connectivity across borders.


What are mobile communication services on-board vessels (MCV services)?

MCV services allow ship passengers and crews to send and receive phone calls and text messages (SMS) on-board ships using their own mobile phones.

Cargo ships can also use MCV services for continuous monitoring of a container's temperature and humidity so that the quality of merchandise can be verified from a distance at any time.

How does MCV work?

Sea travellers' phones are linked to on-board cellular base stations ("pico-cells") that use the 900 MHz and 1800 MHz radio wave bands (often referred to as 'GSM frequencies'). These bands are in turn connected to a land-based core network via satellite, enabling communication with subscribers of all telecommunications networks using a normal mobile phone.

MCV services differ from mobile satellite services (MSS) accessible through satellite phones and other special user devices as well as operational maritime communications made by and directed to the ship's crew.

Why is the European Commission involved in MCV? Could national authorities have dealt with these services?

Current regulatory regimes on the authorisation and use of radio spectrum differ amongst EU Member States, especially when it comes to providing MCV services within European territorial waters.

As ferries, cruise liners and cargo ships in Europe typically cross one or more territorial sea borders during their journey, technical and regulatory coordination at European level is the best way to facilitate on-board connections while avoiding interference.

What has the Commission done?

The Commission has today adopted two measures that will simplify and speed up market access for MCV operators:

* A Commission Decision which ensures the availability of 900 MHz and/or 1800 MHz radio frequency bands for MCV services. It sets out harmonised operational conditions and technical parameters for on-board equipment for mobile phone use throughout European territorial waters so that it does not interfere with land-based mobile networks. In addition, it ensures that mobile users on the coast are not inadvertently connected to on-board systems
*  A Commission Recommendation for a single authorisation principle so that on-board mobile phone operators authorised in one EU country may provide services in the territorial waters of other EU countries without the need to obtain further licences.

EU countries must implement the Decision into national law within 12 months. Although the Recommendation is not binding EU Member States would have to give reasons if they departed from its provisions. Both instruments were adopted with the unanimous support of all Member States in the Radio Spectrum Committee and the Communications Committee.

Texts of the Decision and the Recommendation

What are the technical requirements for the provision of MCV services?

The technical requirements set out in the Commission Decision include technical and operational conditions for the provision of MCV services, such as power limits, a minimum distance of two nautical miles (3.7 km) from the coastline and limiting use to inside the vessel (i.e. not on deck) between two and twelve nautical miles (22.2 km) from the coastline. These requirements have been developed to avoid interference between existing land-based mobile networks and MCV systems.

Can a person make a phone call using a land-based mobile network if close to the coast?

In most cases, phone calls can be made by connecting to a land-based mobile network if a vessel is within two nautical miles (3.7 km) of the coast. Depending on the location of the nearest mobile base station on the coast, the passenger may still be able to continue using land-based mobile services even as the ship goes further away from the coast, especially on the deck of the ship.

What happens once the ship enters the high seas?

People wishing to use mobile phones on vessels on EU countries' internal waters (lakes, rivers and canals) are usually well-served by land-based mobile operators. On the high seas, MCV services are currently regulated by the country of the flag of the ship under international law and are already widely available. The new Commission Decision and Recommendation concern MCV services in European territorial waters, where technical and legal obstacles to the provision of MCV services have until now resulted in significant gaps in mobile connections.

Who provides MCV services?

Several pan-European MCV operators are currently active on the market. Information about them and their prices are usually displayed inside passengers' cabins. In the Recommendation just adopted, the Commission also calls on EU Member States to make sure that consumers are adequately informed about the terms and conditions for the use of MCV services, including applicable prices.

Does the EU Roaming Regulation apply to calls using MCV?

No. The EU Roaming Regulation was adopted by the European Parliament and the Council to deal with the excessive prices consumers pay when they use their mobile phones while travelling abroad. But its scope is restricted to terrestrial networks and therefore it does not apply to MCV services.

It is important that operators of MCV services pursue a transparent pricing policy in accordance with the requirements of the EU telecoms rules and. the European Commission will monitor developments in MCV services.

Do all mobile phones function on-board?

MCV operators currently provide services for mobile phones that can be operated in the 900 MHz and 1800 MHz radio frequency bands, which are used by the majority of people's phones. The Decision and Recommendation just adopted by the Commission address the use of mobile phones in these frequencies. They could be extended to other technologies (such as Universal Mobile Telecommunications System - UMTS) and frequency ranges, which would require a further Commission Decision.

Source: European Commission

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