Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Cell Phone or VHF Radio?

Introduction by William L. Gills aka Bos'n Bill

According to researchers, sometime late last year, the number of people living in households with one or more cell phones exceeded that of people living in a household with a landline. The primary reason for this of course is ease of use, versatility and moreover, mobility.  As cell phones improve in reliability they may far exceed and ultimately replace landlines altogether.

Is it any wonder that more and more boaters are using their cell phones instead of their VHF to relay urgent messages regarding the immediate safety of a vessel or crew member?  The following article, courtesy of the Coast Guard Consumer Affairs and Analysis Branch, outlines why the VHF is the most resourceful form of communication on the water, especially in an emergency.

Cell Phone vs. VHF Radio

The Coast Guard does not advocate cell phones as a substitute for the regular maritime radio distress and safety systems recognized by the Federal Communications Commission and the International Radio Regulations -- particularly VHF maritime radio. However, cell phones can have a place on board as an added measure of safety.

Cell phones generally cannot provide ship to ship safety communications or communications with rescue vessels. If you make a distress call on a cell phone, only the one party you call will be able to hear you.

Most cell phones are designed for a land-based service. Their coverage offshore is limited, and may change without notice. Most everyone has experienced communications out to about 25 miles at times. Yet at other times they could not get through to a land based phone inside of 10 miles from shore. This might well create a communications problem in the event of an emergency at sea.

Locating a cell caller is hard to do. If you don't know precisely where you are, the Coast Guard will have difficulty finding your location on the water.

Note: In some areas, however, cell providers have established a special code (*CG) which, if you are in range, will connect you directly to a Coast Guard Operations Center. This service may only work with the carrier to which you have subscribed.

Cell phones do provide the convenience of simple, easy-to-use, inexpensive, private and generally reliable telephone service to home, office, automobile or other locations. Placing a shore-to-ship call to someone with a cell telephone is especially convenient. However, you usually cannot use your cell phone outside the United States, and you may need a special agreement with your carrier to use it outside that carrier's local service area.

VHF marine radios were designed with safety in mind. If you are in distress, calls can be received not only by the Coast Guard but by ships which may be in position to give immediate assistance. A VHF marine radio also helps ensure that storm warnings and other urgent marine information broadcasts are received. The Coast Guard announces these broadcasts on VHF channel 16. Timely receipt of such information may save your life. Additionally, your VHF marine radio can be used anywhere in the United States or around the world.

On VHF radios, however, conversations are not private and individual boats cannot be assigned a personal phone number. If you are expecting a call, channel 16 or the marine operator's working channel must be continually monitored.

Actually there is no comparison between cell phones and VHF marine radio. They normally provide different services. The cell phone is best used for what it is, an on-board telephone -- a link with shore-based telephones. A VHF marine radio is intended for communication with other ships or marine installations -- and a powerful ally in time of emergency. If you have a cell telephone, by all means take it aboard. If you are boating very far off shore, a cell phone is no substitute for a VHF radio. But, if you are within cell range, it may provide an additional means of communication.

Courtesy of the Coast Guard Consumer Affairs and Analysis Branch

William L. Gills aka Bos'n Bill, webmaster of this site, is the author of the book Lubber's log, published by Llumina Press; a boating journal and adventure story of the author's first time experiences in the preparation, maintenance and piloting of a new, unfamiliar boat. You can visit his website here.



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