Maritime Security:

Partnering Could Reduce Federal Costs and Facilitate Implementation of Automatic Vessel Identification System

GAO-04-868: Published: Jul 23, 2004. Publicly Released: Aug 5, 2004.

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As part of international efforts to ensure maritime safety and security--and to carry out its mandates under the Maritime Transportation Security Act of 2002--the U.S. Coast Guard is developing an automatic identification system (AIS) that should enable it to monitor ships traveling to and through U.S. waters. For AIS to operate nationwide, ships need equipment to transmit and receive AIS signals, and the Coast Guard needs shore stations and designated radio frequencies to keep track of the ships' identities and movements. Yet unresolved frequency issues between the Coast Guard and a private company, MariTEL, have come before the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). GAO reviewed federal agencies' progress in developing AIS nationwide and identified certain challenges and opportunities in completing the work.

Because the Coast Guard is in the early stages of progress toward nationwide AIS development, the total cost and completion time are uncertain. The Coast Guard has taken advantage of opportunities to bring AIS into service quickly in 10 areas where vessel-monitoring technology already exists, and it is simultaneously defining and planning for full nationwide coverage. The Coast Guard has only preliminary cost estimates for a nationwide system, because geographic and other factors will affect installation at different locations. The Coast Guard estimates that planning and testing will be completed, and a request for proposals from potential contractors issued, between December 2004 and February 2005. The Coast Guard faces both challenges and potential opportunities in its development of a nationwide AIS. Nationwide development depends in part on how FCC resolves a continuing dispute between federal agencies and MariTEL over issues including who should have access to the internationally designated AIS frequencies and for what uses. To help protect its licensed rights to certain frequencies, MariTEL generally seeks either sole control over the international standard AIS frequencies or shared control with ships and the federal government. The federal government seeks a resolution that will reserve the internationally designated frequencies for AIS use by government and nongovernment entities. FCC expects to respond in summer 2004. This response--and whether it leads to any additional actions on the part of the interested parties--could affect the overall cost and pace of nationwide AIS development. Depending on FCC's response, one factor that offers an opportunity to reduce federal costs is that some local port entities are willing to assume the expense and responsibility for AIS construction if they can use AIS data, along with the Coast Guard, for their own purposes.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In response to our recommendation, the Coast Guard has partnered with organizations willing to develop their own Automatic Identification System (AIS) receiver sites. The Cooperative Vessel Traffic Services in Los Angeles/Long Beach, California; and Tampa, Florida; are examples of these partnerships. In these locations, the Coast Guard and the local Marine Exchange or Port Authority jointly operate AIS base stations. In addition, in the Pacific Northwest, the Columbia River Pilots worked with the VOLPE Center to develop their own receiver network and are sharing the AIS information with the Coast Guard in Portland, Oregon. In Corpus Christi, Texas, the Coast Guard has established a relationship with the Port Authority of Corpus Christi and is receiving AIS data from their network. The Coast Guard has also partnered with the Saint Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation to receive AIS data from its network along the Saint Lawrence Seaway. In Alaska, the Coast Guard has contracted with Port Graham Development Corporation to operate and maintain eleven receiver sites. The Coast Guard has also contracted with the Marine Exchange of Alaska to receive access to their AIS data. These partnerships and contracts are providing capability in advance of that which will be provided by the Nationwide Automatic Identification System currently being developed by the Coast Guard.

    Recommendation: To help reduce federal costs and speed development of AIS nationwide, depending on the outcome of the expected FCC response, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Commandant of the Coast Guard to seek and take advantage of opportunities to partner with organizations willing to develop AIS systems at their own expense.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: United States Coast Guard


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