The MBM guide to the Automatic Transmitter Identification System

If you are considering cruising the inland waterways of Europe you need to be aware of ATIS and the rules applied to it – even though this may be easier said than done. Navigating the rules attached to ATIS is a gruelling, and often confusing task. We’ve spoken to Ofcom and the Belgium regulatory body, BIPT, which oversees ATIS to try and bring you the bare-bone facts.

What is ATIS?

ATIS stands for Automatic Transmitter Identification System. It is basically a number that emits from your VHF to identify vessels and it is a way of authorities in RAINWAT countries of policing the use of VHF radio.

What is RAINWAT?

RAINWAT stands for the Regional Arrangement concerning the Radiotelephone Service on Inland Waterways and refers to countries that signed the 2000 Basel Arrangement, an agreement that looks at harmonising the use of VHF radio in the inland waterways of Europe, with the Danube and the Rhine being of particular concern.

RAINWAT countries include France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany, among others. The UK is not signed up to the Basel Arrangement but this doesn’t mean we are exempt. The rules of the Basel Arrangement apply to any boat entering the inland waterways of any RAINWAT signatory country, regardless of where the boat is from. As the UK does not currently have a system for issuing ATIS numbers, a recent solution agreed between Ofcom and the 16 signatory countries of RAINWAT is that British boaters can use their MMSI number prefixed by a 9.

What do I need to do?

The first thing you need to do is ensure that all radio equipment on board is ATIS compatible (more on this later) and that you are well versed in the rules of the Basel Arrangement.

Once you are happy that you are aware of the rules you need to apply online to Ofcom for a Notice of Variation (NoV) to your ship radio licence, as UK licences don’t cover you for installing or using ATIS equipment. Please note – a ship portable radio licence is not sufficient, as it only allows you to use the ship’s radio in UK waters. If you have a ship portable radio licence, therefore, you should go to the Ofcom licensing portal and apply for a normal ship radio licence. If you do not already have an MMSI number, you should include DSC in your list of equipment so that the system can issue an MMSI. Once you have this, you can request the NoV.

The Notice of Variation

To apply for your NoV email licensingcentre@ofcom.org.uk with your name, vessel name, vessel call sign and your MMSI number. Once you’ve applied for your NoV, Ofcom will supply you with an ATIS number (your MMSI number, prefixed by a 9) and a covering letter explaining that you are licensed to use ATIS.

Each month Ofcom passes the details of all boats that have the ATIS NoV to BIPT – the Belgium radio regulator, which oversees the whole ATIS system – and BIPT makes this information available to all RAINWAT countries. As the return is made monthly, Ofcom says you should allow up to a month for this process but boaters have reported a surprisingly headache-free and quick process.

However, there are two important conditions to the NoV. The first condition is that ATIS equipment must not be used near the coasts of the UK, Isle of Man or Channel Islands, so you need to be able to switch your radio’s ATIS function on or off. The second condition is that while you are on the inland waterways of RAINWAT states you will be subject to the jurisdiction of those states, in other words you need to be familiar with local rules and regulations.

Is my VHF ATIS-capable?

Many modern DSC radios are ATIS-capable, although until now most sold in the UK have been sold with the ATIS function switched off. This means you may have to contact your dealer and ask them to send an engineer out or send the radio to them to enable the ATIS-function, which usually entails a small fee. The good news though is that once the ATIS function is enabled you should be able to switch this function on and off at will. If you have an older VHF that is not ATIS-capable then you will need to invest in a new DSC radio that can switch functions.

Do all the radios on board need to be ATIS-compatible?

In a word, yes. Boaters we spoke to in Europe said they got around the issue of ATIS by not using VHF inland at all but by using their mobile phones to ring ahead to locks. However, while the BIPT said it might be acceptable to use mobiles in some situations, if you have a VHF fitted on board this does not absolve you of responsibility. The BIPT said, “Each boat equipped with a portable or fixed VHF radio must be equipped with ATIS, even if it is not working when it is checked. This is both valid on the Belgian inland waterways and in every country that signed the Basel Arrangement.”

Strictly speaking all VHFs on board should be ATIS-compatible but where this is not possible it would be prudent to ensure that the VHF that you are planning to make broadcasts on (i.e. any fitted VHF) is ATIS-compatible and that you only use any other VHFs (i.e. handhelds) to listen to other channels.

It is also important to note that dual watch is not allowed on the inland waterways of RAINWAT countries.

Variations from country to country

The channels you broadcast on will change or may have restrictions applied to them, depending on which country you are in. To find out more see the VHF Channel section of the Basel Arrangement.

One of the main aims of the Basel Arrangement is to stop boaters from transmitting at 25 watts on certain frequencies to prevent interference. As a rule of thumb all fixed VHF equipment should be set to between 6W and 25W but you will be required to manually alter this to between 0.5W and 1W in certain circumstances.

What do I need on board?

You must carry a printed copy of the Basel Arrangement, your ship radio licence, plus your Notice of Variation. You should also, of course, have your operator certificate (e.g. SRC or ROC).

Advice from Ofcom

With so many variations we contacted Ofcom to get their advice if you are considering using the inland waterways of Europe, here’s what they said:

“We advise boaters to read and understand the Basel Arrangement and their responsibilities under it and to read the guidance on the RAINWAT website for vessels from non-RAINWAT countries. We also remind readers that they are subject to the laws of the country in which they find themselves at any time. This implies that boaters must take whatever steps they have to familiarise themselves with those laws, in the same way that we would expect a visiting boater on UK waterways to comply with our laws.”