GAO: Coast Guard should seek partnerships to monitor vessels

The Coast Guard should seek partnerships with public and private ports to monitor ships traveling to and through U.S. waters, government auditors conclude in a new report.

The Coast Guard could implement a nationwide automatic identification system for ships more quickly and at less cost to the federal government through partnerships with local public and private ports of entry, according to the Government Accountability Office. The agency noted, however, that the Coast Guard is waiting for the Federal Communications Commission to rule on which frequencies can be used for the AIS system, which will communicate detailed information about a vessel and its cargo between ships and from ship to shore.

"The Coast Guard faces both challenges and opportunities in moving ahead with developing AIS nationwide," according to the report(GAO-04-868). "To help reduce federal costs and speed the development . . . we recommend that, depending on the outcome of the expected FCC response, the commandant of the Coast Guard seek and take advantage of opportunities to partner with port entities willing to develop AIS systems at their own expense."

The Coast Guard is required to implement automatic identification systems under the 2002 Maritime Transportation Security Act.

The report notes that some local ports have demonstrated a willingness to shoulder the expense and responsibility for AIS installation. For example, the Marine Exchange of Southern California, which provides vessel information at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, took the initiative to install and pay for an AIS.

"Some of these entities have installed AIS or similar systems and have offered to share their information with the Coast Guard," the report states. "Such work relieves the Coast Guard from having to carry out its own installation of AIS shore stations in certain locations, thus accelerating and facilitating nationwide AIS implementation."

Coast Guard officials agreed with GAO, but said developing partnerships could face several challenges, such as ensuring that locally built systems meet all government requirements, dealing with reluctant partners, or developing partnerships that maximize savings to the federal government.

Current AIS coverage in the United States is limited primarily to 10 areas. These do not include many of the nation's major ports, and encompass only a fraction of the 12,375 miles of coastline and 25,000 miles of river or inland shoreline, GAO stated.

The FCC is expected to settle a frequency dispute by the end of this summer between the Coast Guard and a private company, MariTEL, Inc. In 1998, the FCC auctioned the two frequencies that the Coast Guard wants to use for AIS.

"In general, the company seeks either sole control over the internationally designated AIS frequencies or shared control with the Coast Guard," GAO states. "The federal government is advocating an alternative proposal, under which FCC would allocate the internationally designated AIS frequencies exclusively to AIS for both government and nongovernment use."

The Coast Guard expects planning for AIS technical requirements to be completed between December 2004 and February 2005. The total cost of implementing the system is estimated between $62 million and $165 million.

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