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Commission adopts rules for mobiles on ships in EU waters

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Commission adopts rules for mobiles on ships in EU watersThe 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.

EU Digital Agenda Commissioner Neelie Kroes said, “Tens of millions of people who travel and work on ships anywhere in European territorial waters will be able to use their mobile phones without problems of interference as a result of the new rules just adopted by the Commission.”

The new rules should put an end to the previous patchwork of twenty seven different sets of national legislation on mobile phone coverage on-board cruise liners, cargo ships and ferries in European territorial waters. The rules create legal certainty for telecoms operators that wish to offer maritime mobile services to their customers.

On-board mobile communication services operate through small (“pico-cell”) on-board base stations which connect sea travellers’ phones to land-based network equipment via satellite. The on-board services ensure the connectivity of users via telecommunications networks by a normal mobile phone.

A Decision just adopted by the Commission guarantees the availability of 900 MHz and/or 1800 MHz GSM radio frequencies for on-board communication services under harmonised technical and operational conditions. It also ensures that on-board mobile services do not interfere with land-based ones so that mobile users on the coast are not inadvertently connected to on-board systems.

At the same time, the Commission has adopted a Recommendation that EU countries liberalise their authorisation regimes in a way that any on-board services operator authorised in one country can provide services in the territorial waters of other EU countries without the need for further licences.

Together these two measures will make it easier for passengers and ships’ crews to stay in touch with family and friends via their own mobile phones while at sea. The continuous maritime connectivity will also enable the real-time monitoring of transported goods thanks to remote sensors. For instance, a container’s temperature and humidity can be monitored from a distance so that the quality of merchandises stored on ships can be controlled at any time.

EU Member States have twelve months to make room for mobile communication services on ships in the radio spectrum bands concerned and to adjust their national laws to comply with the Decision. Member States should also make sure that consumers are adequately informed about the terms and conditions for the use of mobile communication services on ships.


Mobile communication services on-board vessels (MCV services) are cross-border telecoms services. Up to now they have been available in Europe only to a limited extent and usually beyond the territorial waters of Member States, in international waters.

From a technical point of view, sea travellers’ phones are linked to on-board cellular base stations that use the 900 MHz and 1800 MHz radio wave bands (often referred to as ‘GSM frequencies’) which are in turn connected to a land-based core network via satellite, enabling communication with users of all telecommunications networks using a normal mobile phone.

From a commercial point of view, the same range of services (voice calls, text messages) normally provided on a land-based mobile network is offered by on-board MCV systems, but at a higher cost (explained by the need to use satellite) and with less capacity for advanced services such as mobile data.

A major concern for the industry providing MCV systems and services has been that current regulatory regimes diverge between EU Member States both in terms of technical and operational conditions for the use of radio spectrum and with respect to the types of authorisations, especially when it comes to provision of MCV services within Member States’ territorial waters.

In April 2008, the Commission already adopted a set of harmonised rules (Decision and Recommendation) on mobile communication services on aircraft (MCA) to support the needs of mobile users travelling aboard aircraft.

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