Coast Guard vessel ID system enters critical phase

The Coast Guard expects to define technical requirements for an Automatic Vessel Identification System by early next year, but national rollout hinges on availability of funding and the outcome of a dispute over radio spectrum.

The AIS would be a global satellite navigation system that would automatically transmit data about ships to other vessels and to shore-based stations.

Required under the Maritime Transportation Security Act of 2002, it would be part of an international system to track commercial vessels along more than 37,000 miles of U.S. coastal and inland waterways.

Ships must have AIS equipment by the end of this year, but installation of shore-based infrastructure is only beginning.

Only a small fraction of the cost of implementing the system has been budgeted, but the Government Accountability Office has identified a number of port authorities willing to share the cost of the system with the Coast Guard.

The wild card in the equation is a $267 million claim filed against USCG by marine communications company MariTEL Inc. of Cummings, Ga., which holds licenses for radio channels to be used by AIS. The Federal Communications Commission is expected to rule on the complaint this summer.

'This response could affect the overall cost and pace of nationwide AIS development,' GAO said in a recent report on the vessel ID system. 'Depending on FCC's response, one factor that offers an opportunity to reduce federal costs is that some local port entities are willing to assume the expense and responsibility for AIS construction if they can use AIS data.'

Restrictions on the use of AIS radio channels proposed by MariTEL could sour those opportunities, GAO said.

The tracking system would provide static information about vessels, including identity, vessel type and size, as well as dynamic information, including its current cargo, destination, course, speed and estimated arrival time.

The system is intended to improve maritime safety as well as national security, and also could enhance port operations.

USCG is implementing AIS in two phases, focusing first on replacing 10 current Vessel Traffic Service systems that provide tracking services for 36 U.S. ports.

AIS systems are operational in Berwick Bay, La.; Los Angeles-Long Beach, Calif.; Prince William Sound, Alaska; and St. Marys River, Mich. Systems are in various stages of development in Houston-Galveston; New York; Port Arthur, Texas; Puget Sound, Wash.; and San Francisco.

USCG hopes to be able to issue a request for proposals for broader rollout on the nation's waterways between December and February.

The fiscal 2005 budget request for AIS is $4 million, but rough estimates for the total cost range from $62 million to $165 million.

A number of port authorities have expressed interest in partnering with USCG in implementing AIS.

The Marine Exchange of Southern California purchased an estimated $2.2 million worth of AIS equipment for the port of Los Angeles-Long Beach, and the Tampa Port Authority is seeking money to upgrade an early version of AIS at the Florida port.

Other interested parties include the ports of Baltimore; Charleston, S.C.; Corpus Christi, Texas; Hampton Roads, Va.; Portland, Ore.; and Delaware Bay ports in Delaware, Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

But MariTEL successfully bid $7 million for 10-year licenses to two very high frequency radio channels designated as the international channels for AIS. The company is willing to share the channels only with USCG, which would cut the value of the service to ports.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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