Communications are essential for mariners for both routine operations and safety purposes. ETSI is responsible for producing a range of technical standards and reports concerning radio equipment and systems for maritime and inland waterways use.

ETSI's work has to take account of a number of international and European requirements and, as a result, the Institute works closely with the International Maritime Organization (IMO), the Radiocommunication Sector of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU-R), the European Commission and other organizations to ensure that ETSI's products are in accordance with the various conventions and regulations.

The IMO SOLAS convention, the GMDSS and MED Directive

The IMO's International Convention on Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) obliges flag states to ensure that relevant ships carry certain equipment on board. Flag states are further required to carry out type approval of such equipment to ensure that it meets the appropriate safety requirements.

The IMO introduced the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS) in the SOLAS Convention in 1988. The GMDSS uses radio communication to alert search and rescue organizations and ships in the vicinity in the case of an emergency. In addition to distress communications, the GMDSS also provides for the dissemination of general maritime safety information (such as navigational and meteorological warnings and urgent information to ships).

Frequencies for maritime communications and for distress and safety are generally allocated on a global basis and fixed in the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) Radio Regulations.

The European Commission has created the Marine Equipment Directive to ensure uniform application of SOLAS obligations in the EU member states. This Directive requires that the compliance of equipment with the requirements of international conventions shall be demonstrated solely in accordance with the testing standards and conformity procedures referred to in the Directive. Standards produced by ETSI form part of the technical basis of this Directive.

The River Information Services Directive (2014/90/EU) is another European Commission initiative, designed to harmonize river traffic information services on inland waterways within the European Community. It creates a framework for deploying and utilizing harmonized river information services to support the development of inland waterway transport with a view to strengthening its safety, efficiency and environment-friendliness, and facilitating interfaces with other modes of transport.

Maritime radio equipment outside the SOLAS convention

The SOLAS Convention requires that large passenger ships and large cargo vessels carry specific equipment for distress and safety purposes. However, similar equipment, plus other equipment not covered by SOLAS, may be fitted to other craft on a voluntary basis. Further, all vessels may carry equipment for general communication that is not required by the SOLAS convention.

Radio equipment which is not covered by IMO carriage requirements is covered by the Radio Equipment Directive (RED). The Directive relies on 'Harmonised Standards' developed by recognized European standards bodies such as ETSI which can be used to demonstrate compliance with the essential requirements of the Directive.

The RED, in its basic form, has the following essential requirements:

  • Protection of health and safety of the user and any other person (article 3.1a of the Directive)
  • Electromagnetic compatibility (article 3.1b)
  • Effective use of the radio spectrum / orbital resource so as to avoid harmful interference (article 3.2).

The European Commission has also the power to introduce, by adopting delegated acts, additional requirements for particular classes of equipment, for instance to ensure access to emergency services (article 3.3(g) of the RED).

Digital Selective Calling (DSC)

Most Marine radio communication is established by using the DSC signalling protocol from ITU-R M.493. 

ETSI has taken the ITU requirements and created a series of standards that detail the functioning of every permitted class of DSC (EN 300 338 series). The exact DSC functionality may be checked by use of the DSC interoperability standards (TS 101 570 Series).

Our Role & Activities

ETSI monitors developments in the field of maritime communications and creates standards, technical specifications, reports and guides for maritime and inland waterways radio equipment and systems. In accordance with international requirements, these documents include equipment and systems for:
  • promotion of safety of life
  • radio communication, radio location and navigation equipment
  • maritime correspondence providing radio access to terrestrial telecommunication networks

ETSI produces European Standards for communications equipment falling within the scope of the Marine Equipment Directive and the River Information Services Directive. We also produce European Harmonised Standards for communications, radar and navigation equipment falling within the scope of the Radio Equipment Directive (articles 3.1b, 3.2 and 3.3(g)) when applicable. 

Maritime electromagnetic compatibility (EMC)

Historically, electromagnetic compatibility (EMC) requirements under article 3.1b of the Radio Equipment Directive have been covered in separate standards from the radio technical requirements. More recent standards for equipment include all technical requirements.

ETSI Maritime EMC standards are based on the general requirements for navigational and radio equipment found in the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) standard IEC 60945 (adopted as EN 60945 by CENELEC). EN 301 843 series is a multipart EMC standard developed by ETSI for various types of maritime equipment.

Equipment and systems covered by ETSI standards

ETSI's standards and reports for the maritime sector include the following equipment and systems:

  • Inland waterways radar
  • Radio beacons
  • Personal locating devices
  • NAVTEX (meteorological and navigational telegraph)
  • Coastal station VHF
  • VHF radiotelephone
  • Mobile maritime service - MF, HF and VHF bands and satellite
  • On-board UHF
  • Survival craft fixed and portable VHF
  • Shipborne watchkeeping receivers
  • Maritime mobile satellite earth stations
  • Coastal Surveillance, Vessel Traffic Systems and Harbour Radars


A full list of related standards in the public domain is accessible via the ETSI standards search.