DSC Revisited

Electronics — March 2004
By Ben Ellison

DSC Revisited
It’s really here, it really works, and a few savvy fishermen are taking advantage of it.

 More of this Feature
• Part 1: DSC
• Part 2: DSC
• Electronics Q&A
• Navman
• Uniden
• Raymarine
• Lowrance

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• Electronics Column Index
• Electronics Feature Index

Who’s surprised that the DSC (Digital Selective Calling) aspect of VHF marine radio has gotten off to a slow start? Let’s review the technology and the major impediments it’s faced since introduction in the late 1990’s. First of all, even as the first pleasureboat radios able to send a one-button distress signal with owner ID and location came to market, we all knew that the U.S. Coast Guard might not be able to hear those calls for many years. They still can’t. Then there’s the ongoing debacle known as MariTEL.

As you may recall, perhaps with a grimace, MariTEL promised to use the non-distress properties of DSC to revolutionize the coastal ship-to-shore communications business. We were going to be able to direct-dial private calls from up to 50 miles offshore with our boat radio, even hook up to the Internet using the digital modem that is at the hardware heart of DSC. MariTEL had bought up almost all the existing U.S. coastal VHF commercial stations, won more frequencies in FCC auctions, and partnered with several high-flying tech companies to build out a multimillion-dollar network of fiber cable, tall towers, and state-of-the-art digital gizmos. The company even hinted strongly that it would soon provide the Coast Guard with its much needed communications upgrade. I know the story all too well and also grimace in embarrassment because I wrote with great enthusiasm about how MariTEL’s fantastic new system would fuel our adoption of DSC.

Of course MariTEL’s vaunted network turned out to be almost entirely smoke, mirrors, and hype. The company crashed so badly that as of last summer it even shut down all the old regular voice stations. (Today its main hope of revenue seems to be to charge the Coast Guard and/or us boaters for use of the A.I.S. frequency it controls, an ugly story for another time.) MariTEL’s fall was due in part to the wild turnaround in its partners’ larger tech businesses. The other part was the way so many of us stopped using ship-to-shore VHF in favor of our cellphones, and therein lies a lesson.

The very first person who bought a cellphone could call anyone who had a regular old landline. Picture the early adopter who installed the first DSC-VHF, hooked it up to his GPS, acquired an MMSI identification number, and figured out how to enter it into his radio’s now-more-complicated menu system. He got diddly for his efforts. The Coast Guard wasn’t listening; MariTEL wasn’t listening. If you log on to www.maritelusa.com today, you’ll find this terse message: “Note: Standard Horizon radio purchasers, the free, one-year MariTEL service offer has been discontinued.” The damn service never existed anyway! In the words of Homer Simpson, “Doh!” Why bother with DSC when it’s like a Zen paradox, the sound of one hand clapping?

But it’s Standard Horizon that I credit with the inventiveness and determination to show us how—despite these problems—DSC could make boating better. Besides being one of the first to build a “MariTEL Ready” VHF (doh!), the company took a lead in designing recreational radios with useful commercial-grade DSC features like a directory of friends’ names and MMSIs (i.e. speed dialing), position send and request, and call waiting—useful, that is, if you had friends within VHF range who also had DSC radios onboard. But Standard Horizon persevered, developing the first pleasureboat radios that could output the NMEA DSC caller position string and the first plotters that could read it.

I admired this innovation the first time I saw it at a boat show, but last fall Standard arranged for me to do some striper fishing off Cape Cod, Massachusetts, to really see how well it all works. Once two or more boats have each other’s MMSIs programmed—which is a one-time job that’s fairly quick with the unit’s twist-and-push-to-enter knob—several neat communications tricks are possible. You can turn to a little-used channel, pick your friend’s name off the directory, and his radio (and his alone) will ring and switch over to that channel (where your actual conversation is not private, but then again no one heard you going there). It’s just as easy to ask for your buddy’s lat/lon position, and that’s when the plotter magic begins. His position immediately snaps up on the electronic chart, and a dialog box asks if you’d like to navigate to him (see photos on page 52). Bada bing! Electronics just reduced several minutes of radio chatter, scribbling, and pain-in-the-rear manual plotting to a couple of button pushes. And the position passed is totally private, encoded in a DSC signal that can only be decoded by your radio.

Next page > Part 2: Sport fishermen around the country are getting into DSC. > Page 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

This article originally appeared in the February 2004 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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