BY GIFF JOHNSON
Marshall Islands Correspondent

Member of Parliament David Paul, left with Taiwan Ambassador Jeffrey Hsiao in 2021.
Photo by Hilary Hosia

MAJURO, Marshall Islands — For the first time since the Marshall Islands parliament — the Nitijela —established the National Telecommunications Authority by law 32 years ago, NTA is no longer the monopoly provider of telecom services in the Marshall Islands.

A single word amendment to the NTA Act, through Bill No. 66, ushered in a new era in telecommunications in the Marshall Islands. Bill No. 66 was one of two important pieces of legislation passed by the Nitijela in mid-April that will change the telecommunications landscape of the country.

For several years in the early 2010s, Digicel Pacific expressed interest to enter the Marshall Islands market, while more recently Starlink officials informed telecom officials in Majuro that the company would be able to offer satellite internet services beginning in mid-2023 (See “Starlink to offer internet services to islands in 2023,” in the April 4 issue of the Journal.) The World Bank has been promoting telecommunications reform here for a decade and has a multi-million-dollar telecommunications reform grant program in progress.

Until Bill No. 66 passed, no competition in the telecommunications sector was allowed.

Bill No. 66 was introduced by a single Nitijela Member — David Paul — and deleted a single word — “exclusive” — to eliminate it from NTA’s mandate. Paul and his one-word amendment will have an outsized impact on whatever happens going forward in the telecommunications field.

“Starlink can come in now,” said Paul the day after the legislation was adopted on third reading by the Nitijela. “There is no impediment to it now.” Starlink delivers internet services from satellites to small satellite receivers placed outside homes, businesses or offices.

The amendment doesn’t eliminate the NTA. But by eliminating the word “exclusive” it means that NTA is now simply a service provider with no monopoly control of the telecom market. No longer will NTA “have the exclusive right” to engage in telecom services in the Marshall Islands.

NTA was first established by law in October 1990. While the NTA legislation has been the subject of at least five separate amendments in the following decades, its exclusivity to operate telecommunications services was never touched by Nitijela until Bill 66.

A companion Nitijela Resolution No. 57 could lead to a fundamental change of NTA from its current status as a quasi-private entity to a wholly owned government operation.

One of the “whereases” in the resolution reads, “To enable the new regulatory regime to be created and for the current NTA to be replaced by a new public entity NTA which will own the key long life infrastructure, the government intends to repeal the Marshall Islands National Telecommunication Authority Act of 1990 and replace it with a modern telecommunications law that will enable an open, competitive market for telecommunications that is regulated by a Telecommunications Commissioner in the long-term interests of the people of the Republic.”

This proposal to eliminate NTA and create a government regulatory body has long been advocated by World Bank consultants.

In addition to this proposed change, through Resolution No. 57 Nitijela endorsed other future changes to NTA:

  • Ensuring the fair treatment of NTA staff through the proposed Job Offer Scheme for NTA staff.
  • Moving forward with the proposed buy-out offer to NTA non-government shareholders thereby providing those shareholders with the opportunity to leave NTA at current fair value, rather than remain for the dis-establishment of NTA by the Marshall Islands government. mbj