MariTel Launches New Marine Telephone Service With Vessel Location

Monday, July 09, 2001
The owner of a small inland tug company has no choice but to come in to the office every Saturday morning to update his fleet and load locations for his customers; he can't reliably update his crew with change orders as the tugs frequently travel in rural areas with no cell phone coverage.

On the coast, a marine ops center frequently needs to get change orders to its vessels transiting the area. Unfortunately, the center often has to wait until the boats have moved inshore before contact can be made and new orders communicated. In this case, the fastest way between points A to point B often takes an alphabetical detour, costing time and money, negatively impacting the management of valuable marine resources.

Common problems?

Yes. And until now, there wasn't much a commercial operator could do to increase telecommunications capability. The only options included a satellite system or to operate in an area that had a regional provider offering a limited solution.

As the industry faces increasing regulatory pressure and higher operating costs, commercial operators are forced to improve the management and resources in order to preserve revenue and gain a competitive edge.

MariTEL has started to solve these brown water challenges with the recent launch of its new Marine Wireless VHF Radiotelephone Network in the Gulf of Mexico and lower Mississippi River. The June 2001 launch is the first in the company's $300 million nationwide telecommunications Network, scheduled for completion by the end of 2002.

Built expressly for the maritime industry, the telecommunications network is a new marine resource management tool that employs internationally mandated Digital Selective Calling (DSC) technology. Upon completion of the network's 161 towers covering essentially all of the U.S. coastline and inland navigable waterways, offshore range will be from up to 50 to 100 miles.

According to Jim Tindall, vice president Sales and Marketing, MariTEL, "The Network brings easy-to-use, cellular telephone-like functionality to the maritime environment, combining the convenience and safety of a traditional VHF radio with a modern telephone system."

The first services to be offered with MariTEL are automatic telephone calling between ship and the public telephone network and Vessel Location services.

The Network is comprised of strategically placed public coast station tower sites, a fiber-optic network, and integrated hardware and software. At a minimum height of 330 ft., the company's radio towers provide connectivity well beyond conventional cellular coverage, and are cost-effective.

MariTEL's Region One will cover the area from Corpus Christi, Texas to Sarasota, Fla. and the lower Mississippi River as far north as Memphis, Tenn. At press time, this service area includes 15 deployed tower sites of region's scheduled total of 35. The total number of sites to be deployed by the end of July and August are 20 and 24, respectively.

Tindall claims that mariners no longer have to be near shore or in port to reliably make a telephone call. If a vessel is overdue, if a change of routing needs to made or if a crew member's family needs to contact a loved one in an emergency the call can be made now. The company also offers Crew Calling Cards with separate billing as a way of improving employee relations.

MariTEL's Vessel Location service provides another valuable tool in marine resource management, either by way of an on demand "polling" procedure or by automatic reporting pre-programmed into the radiotelephone. Commercial operators will no longer be required to manually update fleet or barge locations, turning a time consuming chore into an easy, automatic operation. The location information can be automatically sent to a customer or viewed on a secure website. This feature also provides an excellent system for owners of red flag cargos, which need frequent monitoring.

MariTEL's pricing plans include free long distance to anywhere within the U.S., Canada and parts of the Caribbean. The company does not charge any roaming or connection fees. The only requirement to utilize these new features is the need for a "MariTEL READY" DSC VHF radiotelephone.

Commercial operator pricing starts at $10 per month, per vessel, with per minute rates at $.99 per minute. Tindall claims that adding Vessel Location services to a subscription "Adds only pennies per vessel update."

Digital Selective Calling is the internationally mandated VHF communications protocol that utilizes channel 70 to "Selectively Call" (hail) specified DSC VHF radiotelephones (vessels) or shore stations. Each DSC radiotelephone has its own unique Maritime Mobile Service Identity (MMSI) number that identifies the caller. The MMSI is a maritime version of the cell telephone Electronic Serial Number that enables a telephone call to be attributed to a specific radiotelephone.

The call is established in an automated, non-voice mode that once connected, automatically transfers to a working voice channel to allow the user's communications (voice or data) to take place.

Not all DSC VHF radiotelephones offer the same features. Users may easily identify DSC VHFs by a one-touch mayday distress button on their faceplate, usually with a protective cover that prevents inadvertent operation. All new model DSC VHFs introduced since 1999 have this mayday functionality as a minimum.

Radiotelephone manufacturers Furuno, Sailor, SEA, Shipmate, Skanti, Simrad, Standard, Raymarine and Ross all have, or are expected to offer "MariTEL-READY" radiotelephones. In addition to the minimal one-touch mayday distress function, these radios support the much higher-level enhancements offered with a MariTEL subscription, including the automatic Ship-and-Shore telephone interconnect and Vessel Location services. At press time, manufacturers were also expected to announce the availability of scrambling features that will make marine telephone calls totally private. In addition, touch tone dialing for access to voicemail, bank accounts and other such systems, and data transmission such as fax and e-mail, were also expected.

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