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Telecommunications Act Clears Way For GMDSS Implementation

On February 8, U.S. President Bill Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act, which provides for a broad deregulation of telephone and cable television services.

A less publicized provision of the act also resolves an impasse which has placed U.S.-flag commercial vessels at a competitive disadvantage relative to foreign counterparts.The IMO has implemented a major upgrade to the radiocommunications provisions of the Safety Of Life At Sea (SOLAS) Convention referred to as the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS), which discontinues the use of manual Morse radiotelegraphy and instead relies on systems such as Inmarsat maritime satellite systems, and provides for modernization — including automation - of existing medium frequency (MF), high frequency (HF) and very high frequency (VHF) services used in maritime service.

GMDSS has been in effect since 1992, under a transitional period during which time ships may utilize either system.

While the compliance deadline for oceangoing ships over 300 tons is May 1999, many GMDSS ships of other nations have been sailing since 1992 without the radiotelegraphy facilities of the earlier SOLAS treaty.

U.S.-flag ships, on the other hand, have been granted only near-coastal exemptions from the radiotelegraphy requirements since the FCC could not waive those provisions of the Communications Act of 1934.

For this reason, there has been no economic incentive for early conversion, and few U.S. ships have outfitted for GMDSS operation. According to USCG sources, the new Telecommunications Act states that U.S. ships operating in accordance with the GMDSS "shall not be required to be equipped with a radio telegraphy station operated by one or more radio officers or operators." This is expected to resolve the impasse and enable U.S. ships to operate on the same basis as the rest of the world fleet. The procedures for providing this relief have not yet been announced, but ships cannot discontinue radiotelegraphy services until the FCC has amended Part 80 of its rules, or until receiving individual exemptions. The USCG has formed a GMDSS Implementation Task Force in order to accelerate domestic outfitting of the communications systems, and has addressed issues such as operator training, commercial vessel outfitting, recreational vessel awareness, and the needs of service agents and equipment manufacturers.

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