Marshall Islands Correspondent

The National Telecommunications Authority headquarters in Delap, Majuro.
Photo by Giff Johnson

MAJURO, Marshall Islands — Starlink, the global satellite internet system sponsored by Elon Musk’s SpaceX, told Marshall Islands officials it expects to be able to provide service to the country by mid-2023 — if the Marshall Islands opens the telecommunications sector to competition.

Starlink would dramatically increase internet speeds not only for the urban centers of Majuro and Ebeye, according to services on offer. The same service would also be available for the outer islands. The primary issue for outer islands will be cost, said local officials. But Marshall Islands authorities communicating with Starlink and promoting telecommunications reform sad this is an issue for the national government to negotiate with Starlink and donors supporting telecom reform and Starlink.

 “We should assume as part of the planning environment that Starlink will be ready to deliver service from mid-2023 and that this would bring a significant improvement in services, particularly for the neighboring islands,” said Ace Doulatram, project direct for the World Bank-funded Digital Marshall Islands Project.

Starlink requires no infrastructure to be built in the country to deliver service. “They only require regulatory changes to allow them to offer their services legally in RMI,” he said. The Marshall Islands government “should engage with Starlink to explore pricing and packaging solutions for the neighboring islands to find a solution that both donors and the government could support which would provide the public, schools, dispensaries and other government and municipal agencies access to connectivity.”

Doulatram, Finance Assistant Secretary Malie Tarbwillin, and technical advisors Mike Lott and Frank Mclaughlin were on the most recent call with Starlink. This was the third meeting different Marshall Islands authorities have had with Starlink in recent months. The first call was with Marshall Islands President David Kabua and the second with the National Telecommunications Authority, which currently has monopoly control of the telecom sector.

Starlink officials indicated their understanding that their standard business model — $100 per month per customer — may not be suitable in the Pacific, Doulatram said. “They expressed an interest in understanding how they could work with governments and donors to build an offering that better suited the needs of the neighboring islands in particular,” he said.

Prices are $100 per month for a 100Mbps service that currently performs up to 250Mbps, Doulatram said. The service requires a one-time “establishment” fee of $500, which includes costs for a small satellite terminal that the customer places outside their residence or business that is connected to a wifi router.

For comparison, the current $69.95 per month internet DSL service offered by NTA and used by many local residents is billed as an “up to” 25Mbps service that is degraded by various factors, including the challenge of delivering internet through NTA’s existing copper wire system. Businesses and individuals can also get NTA’s premium service of 100Mbps on Majuro and Ebeye that costs $200 for consumers, and $2,100 for businesses.

“Anyone buying a fast service today from NTA would switch to Starlink as its speeds will be as fast if not faster and prices will be substantially less — for a business, 95 percent less,” Doulatram said. NTA would obviously respond to competition, but Doulatram said “there will revenue loss implications for NTA.”

Other nations in the North Pacific are ready with existing regulatory environments that will allow Starlink to launch as soon as they are ready next year, he said. mbj