An international approach to the management of the radio spectrum is necessary to preserve radio as a reliable means of communication, because radio signals do not stop at national borders. Without management, interference between different uses of the spectrum would be inevitable.
Worldwide, the radio spectrum is governed by international agreements including the International Radio Regulations which are binding on all International Telecommunication Union (ITU) Member States - including the UK.
The International Radio Regulations prohibit the establishment of a transmitting station by a private person or an enterprise without a licence.
In the UK the applicable provisions of the International Radio Regulations are implemented through the Wireless Telegraphy Act 2006 and its associated legislation. The UK implementation of the International Radio Regulations and management of the civil radio spectrum is the responsibility of Ofcom.
As the spectrum licensing authority, Ofcom authorises the installation and use of wireless telegraphy apparatus. Wireless telegraphy apparatus includes many of the transmitting devices found on board vessels. It is unlawful to establish, install or use wireless telegraphy apparatus or stations including on board a UK or Crown Dependencies (i.e. Guernsey, Jersey or the Isle of Man) vessel, other than under (and in accordance with) a licence issued by Ofcom.
Maritime radio is primarily for the safety of life and vessels at sea, however it may be used on inland waterways as well as a sea. It allows vessels to communicate with each other and with shore stations.
Maritime Radio Licences include the Ship Radio Licence, the Ship Portable Radio Licence and Coastal Station Radio Licences.
Shore stations for communications with ships must be licensed. Details of the licences available can be found on the Ofcom website and guidance on the regulations is provided by the RYA for the benefit of clubs.
There are two licences which cover the operation of wireless telegraph apparatus on board a recreational craft. These are the Ship Radio Licence and the Ship Portable Radio Licence.
Ship radio equipment intended for use on board vessels must meet the radio equipment conformity requirements detailed in the licence terms and conditions.
The terms of the licence also obligate the licensee to ensure that radio equipment is only operated by (or under the direct supervision of) a holder of a maritime radio operator's certificate with a valid authority to operate.
Full details of each of these requirements can be found in Ofcom's "Guidance notes for licensing" Of168a.
You can register, apply for and print a Ship Radio Licence or Ship Portable Radio Licence for free at https://ofcom.force.com. Alternatively you can apply using a paper application form but a fee is then payable. Amendments can be made free of charge via the portal or by post.
A Ship Radio Licence is specific to a vessel. At the time of application you will be required to indicate what maritime radio transmission equipment is carried on board the vessel.
This could include any of the following:
Details of other equipment which may be on board a vessel and which requires a wireless telegraphy licence can be found in the licence application form (follow the link and expand the section on Ships Radio Licensees).
Your Ship Radio Licence document details what equipment is covered by the licence and should be kept up to date including whenever changes are made to the equipment on board.
Vessel call signs are allocated when the first application for that vessel is made for a Ship Radio Licence. This call sign remains with the vessel regardless of changes of ownership or vessel name, unless it ceases to be a UK vessel, is destroyed or is unlicensed for a period of two or more years.
A Maritime Mobile Service Identity (MMSI) number is also issued with all new Ship Radio Licences. However, this was not always the case. If you have an existing Ship Radio Licence without an MMSI number and you require an MMSI number, you will need to amend your licence, adding the relevant piece(s)of equipment, and a MMSI number will then be generated and displayed on your licence.
Call signs and MMSI numbers are both specific to the country of issue. If you have a boat which has a call sign and MMSI number issued by another country and you require a Ship Radio Licence from Ofcom, a new UK call sign and MMSI number will be allocated to the vessel.
Ofcom is required to pass details of all of the call signs and MMSIs that it issues, including contact details, to the MCA and to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) Maritime Mobile Access and Retrieval System (MARS) database.
A Ship Radio Licence is appropriate, unless you are licensing a device(s)for use on more than one vessel (which is made possible in the UK and UK territorial waters by the Ship Portable Radio Licence).
Devices that are licenced by a Ship Portable Radio Licence can used on more than one vessel. However the Ship Portable Radio Licence is only valid to the extent of the UK territorial seas. In place of an internationally recognised call sign, the Ship Portable Radio Licence has a T (reference)number, which is not recognised internationally. The details of the Ship Portable Radio Licence are not sent to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU)) and the licence states that it, "covers the use of the radio equipment up to the limit of the UK territorial sea".
The use of licensable devices in the territorial waters of other administrations is subject to the regulations and authorisations of those administrations. Therefore a Ship Radio Licence and an international call sign are required even if the vessel in question is only carrying a handheld VHF.
The Ship Portable Radio Licence can also be used to licence a number of other types of equipment including an EPIRB and/or PLB but it can only authorise one piece of each type of equipment and again use of the equipment is only licenced to the limit of the UK territorial sea. An EPIRB or PLB must additionally be registered with the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) Beacon Registry.
In the UK licensing for a handheld VHF with DSC is currently under review. In the interim, anyone operating a handheld VHF with DSC should be mindful that misleading identities, which could be produced by using a handheld VHF with DSC outside the terms of the radio licence, are expressly prohibited by the International Radio Regulations.
In the UK, if a handheld VHF with DSC is to be used on multiple vessels it must be licenced with Ship Portable Radio Licence which restricts the use of the equipment to the UK and UK territorial waters. The set must be programmed with the MMSI number allocated on the Ship Portable Radio Licence.
In the past is was prohibited to enter a vessel's MMSI number (as allocated by a Ship Radio Licence) in a handheld VHF with DSC. This position has recently been softened and Ofcom has indicated to the RYA that, a handheld VHF with DSC may be programmed with the MMSI allocated on a UK Ship Radio Licence but in doing so the owner is restricting the use of the handheld VHF with DSC to the vessel named on the Ship Radio Licence only. (This guidance can be found in Ofcom's "Guidance notes for licensing" Of168a in paragraph 2.2 and differs from the information on the Ofcom website which is in the process of being updated.)
Provision is not made within the current UK licencing arrangement for portable radio equipment to be used across multiple vessels beyond the UK territorial sea.
The RYA has raised this problem with Ofcom and is urging Ofcom to find a solution to allow portable radio equipment to be licensed for use aboard multiple vessels beyond the UK territorial sea and aboard vessels of different flag states, however this is not something the UK can resolve alone; it may therefore still take time for it to be resolved.
Ofcom's current advice relating to using portable radio equipment on different vessels can be found in paragraphs 1.11 to 1.13 of the "Guidance notes for licensing" Of168a.
EPIRBs and PLBs are also maritime radio transmission equipment and must be licensed through the Ship Radio Licence or Ship Portable Radio Licence, however they must also be registered with the MCA Beacon Registry to ensure that the National Maritime Operations Centre (NMOC) and the Coastguard Operation Centres around the country have the information they require for search and rescue, in the event that an EPIRB or PLB is activated. In the UK MMSI numbers are not issued to these devices.
The International Radio Regulations require that a maritime radio station is controlled by an operator holding a certificate issued or recognised by the government to which the station is subject. Assuming that is the case other users may operate the equipment.
Similarly the terms and conditions for both types of ship radio licence issued by Ofcom obligate the licensee to ensure that radio equipment is only operated by (or under the direct supervision of) a holder of a maritime radio operator's certificate with a valid authority to operate.
The maritime radio operator's certificates changed with the introduction of the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS) and Digital Selective Calling (DSC). If you have a pre-GMDSS radio operator's certificate, this remains valid but only for pre-GMDSS equipment. You must upgrade your operator's licence if you wish to use GMDSS maritime radio equipment.
There are 4 certificates which are valid for the operation of GMDSS maritime radio equipment:
The SRC covers the use of VHF and VHF/DSC equipment on board pleasure vessels and is available through RYA recognised training centres.
The LRC is required if a pleasure vessel is equipped with MF, HF and /or satellite communications equipment. The LRC is administered by the Association of Marine Electronic and Radio Colleges (AMERC) Tel: 01539 742745.
The ROC or GOC is required if it is mandatory for a vessel to be equipped with maritime radio equipment under the Merchant Shipping Radio Installation Regulations (1998) for example cargo vessels over 300GT and passenger vessels. They are sometimes also needed for smaller vessels as the SRC and LRC are not STCW certificates. The ROC and GOC are also administered by AMERC.
The SRC complies with the European harmonised CEPT examination procedures for the SRC for non-SOLAS vessels. CEPT recommends that the SRC should be mutually recognised by all signatory Governments when issued in accordance with ITU International Radio Regulations. However, the Authority to Operate a UK ship's radio station is granted under a licence to operate issued by the Secretary of State in accordance with UK regulations. The wording of the UK's Authority to Operate restricts the validity of the certificate to UK vessels only.
Unless you live aboard (i.e. your boat is your main residence) a television on board is covered by the TV Licence for your main residence. For more information visit the TV licensing website.
Ofcom - Ships' radio and ship portable radio: https://www.ofcom.org.uk/manage-your-licence/radiocommunication-licences/ships-radio
Ofcom - Amateur and Ships Radio Licensing Portal: https://www.ofcom.org.uk/manage-your-licence/radiocommunication-licences/online-licensing-service
MARS database: https://www.itu.int/en/ITU-R/terrestrial/mars/Pages/default.aspx