Marconi and the need for standards



Bert Moore, Director, Communications and Media Relations, AIM Global, Warrendale, Pennsylvania, USA


To commemorate the 100th anniversary of Guglielmo Marconi’s historic transmission of a radio signal from Poldhu in Cornwall England to a receiver at Signal Hill, St. John’s in Newfoundland, Canada, the Marconi company asked a team of its radio experts to duplicate the feat. These radio experts determined that it was  not possible to duplicate the December 12, 1901 transmission using a replica of Marconi’s equipment. The extensive use of the radio spectrum today creates so much ‘noise’ that the signal would simply have been lost in the ‘clutter.’


Moder n ports owe much to Marconi’s pioneer ing work. Regular communication with oceangoing vessels depends heavily on radio communications – whether via UHF, VHF or satellite communications. And, as we move into the 21st century, more and more of the radio spectrum will be devoted to communications devices inside port facilities. Radio frequency identification (RFID), wireless local area networks (WLANs) and wireless backhaul will all add to the ‘noise’ in the radio spectrum. Without international agreement on the use of the radio spectrum for these commercial applications, port operators, like the Marconi team of 2001, will find that communication is simply not possible.

Marconi could not have foreseen the explosive growth of the use of the radio spectrum in the 100 years followin his demonstration of the feasibility of communicating long distances via very long radio waves (>1km). At the time, Marconi’s radio was limited to transmitting what were essentially bursts of static – a ser ies of spark discharges  – suitable only for communication by ‘dot’ codes, the most universally accepted of which is Morse Code. It would not be until the invention of the vacuum tube that voice and other types of modulated communication would become possible. (Ironically, with the advent of the ‘digital age,’ many transmissions are again just a series of ‘dots’ – 1s and 0s.) However, as early as 1903, the need to regulate and allocate parts of the radio spectrum was recognised by the international community. In that year, an international conference was held in Berlin, Germany to establish allocation, priorities and rights. At the conference, maritime safety was seen as a high priority and agreements were reached on maritime radio protocols and allocation.

The delegates saw the future potential of radio even in this early stage and agreed on rules of interoperation across different systems and allocated the spectrum among government, military and commercial uses.

In the 1920s, Marconi began work with much shorter wavelengths and determined that ‘short wave’ communication could be more effective than long wave. Governments, however, were not impressed and allocated these ‘junk’ frequencies to amateur radio operators. Only later, during the 1940s, did this band come into widespread use, primarily for shorter range communications from mobile and handheld devices.

The potential

Therein lies the lesson of radio spectrum allocation. The very promising beginning of international cooperation and agreement on the allocation of frequencies and uses of radio transmission became a more-or-less chaotic jumble of local and national regulations and allocations that, until very recently, prevented the development of globally-acceptable devices that were not ‘standard’ radios.

In fact, the first international (ISO) standard for the use of radio frequency identification for maritime containers required an RFID tag that was capable of operating on two different frequencies: one for North America and one for Europe. In other parts of the world, neither frequency was legal for use. This made the tag very expensive, not globally acceptable, and, as a result, the system was never widely implemented.

The benefit of having RFID tags that can uniquely and automatically identify containers as they’re unloaded should be immediately obvious to port operators. There’s an immediate reduction in the labour required to visually identify the container number, particularly when there is more than one number on the container, and then manually enter it into the system. The use of RFID in ports can go well beyond simple identification.

Using RFID ‘signposts’ to identify key locations within the yard, readers on tugs or mobile cranes can automatically track the movement and storage location of every container, greatly increasing the efficiency of the system in both storing, and subsequently locating containers for movement out of the yard. GPS systems could also be used for this application but any system depends on being able to accurately record the correct container ID.

Efficient movement of containers through port terminals and staging facilities is also dependent on outside factors such as governmental regulations. With increased concerns about the vulnerability of port facilities to biological and toxicological threats, as well as smuggling of human cargo, governments are becoming more rigorous in their inspection of containers. Inspections can cause delays that clog yards with containers that miss their scheduled departure. According to the Logistics Institute, if a container is inspected at the point of departure, there is an 80% chance it will miss its shipment schedule by one day and a 10-20% chance it will miss the next departure.

Waiting for inspections of incoming containers also adds days to the time a container just sits in a yard. With an increasing number of inspections by the US government in ports of origin, the implications are clear.

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