Cell Phone vs. VHF Radio
The Coast Guard does not advocate cell phones as a substitute for the regular maritime radio distress and safety systems recognized by the Federal Communications Commission and the International Radio Regulations -- particularly VHF maritime radio. However, cell phones can have a place on board as an added measure of safety.
CELL PHONE LIMITATIONS IN AN EMERGENCY
Cell phones generally cannot provide ship to ship safety communications or communications with rescue vessels. If you make a distress call on a cell phone, only the one party you call will be able to hear you.
Most cell phones are designed for a land-based service. Their coverage offshore is limited, and may change without notice. Most everyone has experienced communications out to about 25 miles at times. Yet at other times they could not get through to a land based phone inside of 10 miles from shore. This might well create a communications problem in the event of an emergency at sea.
Locating a cell caller is hard to do. If you don't know precisely where you are, the Coast Guard will have difficulty finding your location on the water.
Note: In some areas, however, cell providers have established a special code (*CG) which, if you are in range, will connect you directly to a Coast Guard Operations Center. This service may only work with the carrier to which you have subscribed.
CELL/VHF MARINE RADIO COMPARISON
Cell phones do provide the convenience of simple, easy-to-use, inexpensive, private and generally reliable telephone service to home, office, automobile or other locations. Placing a shore-to-ship call to someone with a cell telephone is especially convenient. However, you usually cannot use your cell phone outside the United States, and you may need a special agreement with your carrier to use it outside that carrier's local service area.
VHF marine radios were designed with safety in mind. If you are in distress, calls can be received not only by the Coast Guard but by ships which may be in position to give immediate assistance. A VHF marine radio also helps ensure that storm warnings and other urgent marine information broadcasts are received. The Coast Guard announces these broadcasts on VHF channel 16. Timely receipt of such information may save your life. Additionally, your VHF marine radio can be used anywhere in the United States or around the world.
On VHF radios, however, conversations are not private and individual boats cannot be assigned a personal phone number. If you are expecting a call, channel 16 or the marine operator's working channel must be continually monitored.
SHOULD YOU RELY ON A CELL PHONE EXCLUSIVELY?
Actually there is no comparison between cell phones and VHF marine radio. They normally provide different services. The cell phone is best used for what it is, an on-board telephone -- a link with shore-based telephones. A VHF marine radio is intended for communication with other ships or marine installations -- and a powerful ally in time of emergency. If you have a cell telephone, by all means take it aboard. If you are boating very far off shore, a cell phone is no substitute for a VHF radio. But, if you are within cell range, it may provide an additional means of communication.
Courtesy of the Coast Guard Consumer Affairs and Analysis Branch