Cellular Phone Use Aboard Vessels
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Cell phones are not as good as VHF radios, because they don't hold up to water, rough handling and you can't call other boats with them. Would you want to use your cell phone in a driving rain or when waves are breaking over your deck, even if it is in a bag.
Following is a statement from the CG website about Cell Phones.
Cellular telephones are fast becoming the land mobile communications link of choice throughout the United States. Their lowered cost, increased coverage, and ease of use have made them very popular. Cellular telephone coverage, however, is primarily optimized for the land areas, with limited cellular coverage offshore.
Cellular telephones have several limitations when compared to VHF-FM marine band radios. These include: Lower power. Cellular phones are limited to 3 watts output power-installed marine VHF-FM transceivers have as much as 25 watts when put on the "high power" setting.
Point-to-point communications. A call made on a cellular telephone "connects" one phone to another - no one else can (legally) monitor the call. If a cellular phone is used for distress, nearby vessels are unable to hear the distress call and render assistance.
No communications with CG units. A distressed vessel calling the Coast Guard for assistance will be able to contact a shore unit (if within cellular range of the shore) but will not be able to communicate with a CG cutter or aircraft. The mariner would still need a VHF-FM radio to communicate with the cutter or aircraft for coordinating the rescue.
No radio watch on cellular. The Coast Guard monitors Channel 16 VHF-FM through a system of overlapping transceiver sites. Calling on Channel 16 never results in a "busy signal" the way a telephone call might. The possibility also exists that the mariner could, in using cellular telephone, call the wrong CG unit, which could result in a delay in his being rescued.
THE BOTTOM LINE IS: The Coast Guard, by law, is required to monitor Channel 16 VHF-FM 24 hours a day. Cellular phones are nice, but the mariner's primary method of communication with the Coast Guard should continue to be VHF-FM radio.
To assist the "cellular" boater in distress to contact the Coast Guard, the cellular providers and the Coast Guard have jointly developed the "*CG" feature, which is available in all First District1 waters where cellular service exists. Cellular callers need only to dial "*CG" (*24) to be automatically connected to the nearest Coast Guard Group Operations Center. Callers should identify themselves and indicate that the call is a cellular call. This will help the Coast Guard in handling the case efficiently. This service will move to other disttricts in the future. (Not all cell phones offer instant access to the Coast Guard. Contact the Coast Guard through the emergency 911 operator.)
The following is from the Coast Guard Newsletter Release No: 005-03 January 14, 2003.
"Dialing *CG on a cell phone is one way to call for help, but the Coast Guard still encourages boaters to use a marine band VHF radio as the primary way to report distress. *CG is a system enacted by individual cellular phone companies as a means of contacting the Coast Guard in case of emergency. Using this system, boaters in distress can dial *CG on their cell phones to contact a local Coast Guard operations center. The Coast Guard, however, doesn't guarantee cell phone signal coverage on the high seas, nor does it force or encourage cell phone companies to set up a *CG program for their network. "*CG was never meant to replace the established VHF marine radio. That's why we stress to everybody that it's a secondary system," said Chief Warrant Officer Matthew Pickard, the First Coast Guard District's frequency manager. When considering emergency communication options, boaters should keep in mind the following: A VHF radio allows broadcast capability to multiple listeners and stations while cell phones limit communication to point-to-point contact. Rescuers can track the direction of a VHF radio transmission but cannot isolate the direction of a cellular signal. VHF radios allow mariners to receive emergency broadcasts, weather information and other potentially life-saving messages while cell phones are not capable of receiving these broadcasts. Additionally, cell phones often have weak signals offshore. "You can't beat a VHF radio for communication," said Al Johnson, boating safety coordinator with the Coast Guard. The international VHF distress frequency, 156.8 MHz, is found on channel 16 and is monitored 24 hours a day. This channel cannot be monitored or used by cellular phones."
1 The First Coast Guard District, with district offices in Boston, Massachusetts, is comprised of: Maine; New Hampshire; Vermont; Massachusetts; Rhode Island; Connecticut; New York except that part north of latitude 42 degrees North and west of longitude 74-39'West; that part of New Jersey north of 40-18'North latitude, east of 74-27'West longitude, and northeast of a line from 40-18'North, 74-27'West north west to the New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania boundaries at Tristate; all U.S. naval reservations on shore at Newfoundland; the ocean area encompassed by the Search and Rescue boundary between Canada and the United States easterly to longitude 63 degrees West; thence due south to latitude 41 degrees North; thence southwesterly along a line bearing 219 degrees True to the point of intersection at 36-43'North latitude, 67-30'West latitude with a line bearing 122 degrees True from the New Jersey shoreline at 40-18'North latitude (in the vicinity of Tom's River, New Jersey); thence northwesterly along this line to the coast.