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Navigating the Sea of Change: Evolution in Maritime Communication

Maritime Communication

Maritime digitalisation and communications have come a long way since the days of flag semaphores. Shipping may have been slow to adopt technology in the past, but the maritime industry has been quick to recognize the importance of communication services maritime sectors optimised. With increased connectivity, shipping legislation is mandating vessel communication and information reporting, making it more crucial than ever to understand the evolution of maritime satecommunications

From ship-to-shore interactions, such as voyage instructions and port contacts, to ship-to-ship interactions like navigation safety, the maritime sector has a rich history of keeping ships connected and informed. 

Join us as we explore the key milestones and technologies that have shaped the maritime communications landscape.

Maritime Signal Flags

This system, dating back to the earliest days of navigation, allows for messages to be communicated through the hoisting of specific flags, each symbolizing a letter. Imagine the thrill of a dive support vessel raising the “A” flag to warn other vessels of its underwater diver, a clear and unmistakable call for caution. In an era before modern technology, this was the most reliable way to send messages at sea.

Adherence to the International Code of Signals, a universal system of signals and codes, ensures that all vessels can communicate crucial information, especially in the face of language barriers. The Code encompasses a variety of methods for delivering messages, including flag hoists, signal lamps (known as “blinkers”), flag semaphore, radiotelegraphy, and radiotelephony. The International Maritime Organization (IMO) maintains the integrity of this important system, having published a new edition of the Code in 2005. Join the timeless tradition of maritime signaling and navigate the seas with confidence.

The Radiotelegraphy

The advent of radiotelegraphy in the early 19th century revolutionized ship-to-shore communication through the use of Morse Code and other encoded signals. Morse Code, a system that transforms text characters into standardized sequences of two distinct signal durations (dits and dahs), enabled the efficient encoding of the 26 basic Latin letters, one accented Latin letter (É), Arabic numerals, and a limited set of punctuation and procedural signals (prosigns). Despite its initial success, the laborious process of individually transmitting each letter proved costly for vessels, ultimately rendering the technology outdated.


The integration of VHF radio brought about a profound transformation in the world of marine communication. The development of two-way radio transceivers on ships paved the way for efficient and reliable ship-to-ship and ship-to-shore communication, improving the safety of all those involved.

Utilizing FM channels in the very high frequency (VHF) radio band, the marine VHF radio has been a staple in the world of maritime communication since the early 1900s, shortly after the invention of radio technology by Guillermo Marconi. Despite its widespread use and longevity, VHF technology is not without its daily challenges. Its frequency of under 1GHz presents limitations in the form of radio restrictions.

The Satellite  

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) recognized the limitations of conventional VHF radio communication systems in maritime operations and, in 1979, encouraged member nations to implement Maritime Mobile Satellite Communication (MMSC) systems. Since then, satellite technology has become a crucial component of modern maritime communication systems, linking vessels at sea with land-based systems.

Very Small Aperture Terminals (VSATs)

The transfer of large amounts of data remains a challenge in maritime communications. To address this issue, VSATs provide an efficient solution. By subscribing to VSAT services, ship operators can leverage exclusive satellite channels for voice and data transmission, thereby establishing a robust network that can efficiently handle large data volumes.

The Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS)

The early 1990s saw the advent of a new era in maritime communication with the implementation of the GMDSS, an integrated system utilizing satellite and terrestrial radiocommunications. The GMDSS became fully operational on February 1st, 1999, marking the end of the Morse Code as a means of maritime communication.

As per the requirements of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) under the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) Convention, Chapter IV, all international cargo ships over 300 Gross Tonnage and all passenger ships are mandated to carry the specified terrestrial and satellite radiocommunication equipment, enabling them to send and receive distress alerts and maritime safety information, as well as to engage in general communication. The GMDSS also introduced email communication, a previously unavailable option.

In 2022, the IMO approved a modernization plan for the GMDSS with amendments set to take effect by 2024. This underscores the continuous evolution of digitalization in the maritime industry and the efforts to enhance the effectiveness and reliability of maritime satellite communication.

The Digital Selective Calling (DSC)

Digital Selective Calling (DSC) is an essential component of the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS) that provides enhanced communication capabilities, including the ability to transmit and receive remote control commands for distress signals, urgent safety calls, and routine messages. Under the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) Convention, DSC controllers are commonly integrated with the VHF radio system.

DSC represents a significant advancement in maritime communication as it replaces traditional voice calls with predefined digital messages transmitted via the VHF. This optimization of maritime communication has contributed to the overall digitalization of the maritime industry and has played a critical role in ensuring the safety and efficiency of maritime operations.

Current Challenges In Maritime Communications

The ongoing digitalization of maritime communications has brought about a host of cyber vulnerabilities, requiring ongoing attention and vigilance from satellite communication providers, operators, and ship operators. To address these challenges, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) issued a recommendation in 2017 for ship operators to incorporate measures to address cybersecurity risks into their Safety Management Systems (SMS)

One of the leading solutions in the industry is IEC Telecom, known for its exceptional cybersecurity and satellite communication services in Dubai. Their innovative approach to ensuring the safety and security of maritime communications is a testament to the company’s commitment to advancing the maritime industry through the use of cutting-edge technologies.

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