Boat comes in for European ferry phone services

Ferry operators will be able to provide voice and basic data services to passengers, after the EC approved a new EU-wide licence

The European Commission has made it easier for ferry operators to provide on-board cellular services, in a move that will give many passengers better voice and text coverage when offshore.

The Commission said on Friday that ferry operators will need to possess only one communications licence, whichever European country's waters they sail through. Previously, they had to abide by what the Commission described as a "patchwork of 27 different sets of national legislation".

The Commission hopes the simplification will encourage ferry companies to offer voice and simple data services to passengers. Digital Agenda commissioner Neelie Kroes said in a statement that "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".

Two radio bands are covered by the EU's new rules: the 900MHz and 1800MHz bands. This means GSM and GPRS services can be offered, with the potential for 3G services if these bands are allowed to be refarmed for use by ferry operators. Both voice and data connectivity will be possible, but both will be charged at a premium, according to the Commission.

As SIM cards can be fitted to freight traffic, businesses will be able to track and monitor their cargo using these systems.

On-ship cellular systems provide connectivity by using one or more picocells — small mobile base stations that are slightly larger than femtocells — located within the passenger and cargo decks. Backhaul connectivity is provided via satellite.

Previously, such systems were banned in the territorial waters of most countries. The Commission will still not allow the use of the systems within 22km of shore, meaning consumers will have to try to access land-based mobile networks when close to land.

Orange has successfully circumvented this problem in the English Channel by deploying directional antennas in both Dover and Calais, as well as picocells on Sea France ferries, giving connectivity to customers without having to rely on satellite backhaul. Satellite systems are currently used for backhaul by ferries crossing the Irish Sea.

The simplification of maritime communications laws is the second major piece of work by the Commission in tackling restrictions on transport-based mobile services.

Between 2000 and 2008, the Commission helped pave the way for the launch of GSM services on aeroplanes by unifying the different licensing and technical rules across the EU. Airlines are now allowed to deliver femtocell-based mobile connectivity for passengers above 3,000m on EU flights.

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