According to Radio New Zealand International, bemobile, the Solomon Islands’ second mobile operator, has signed a deal with the Marshall Islands’ National Telecommunications Authority (NTA) to purchase excess satellite bandwidth no longer required by the government-owned telco. In March 2010, Majuro and Kwajalein were connected to the HANTRU-1 submarine cable (named after owner Hannon Armstrong Capital and operator Truestone), which also connects to Pohnpei in the Federated States of Micronesia, before linking to the regional telecoms hub of Piti, Guam. The arrival of the cable effectively curtailed the Marshall Islands’ use of satellite broadband connectivity, hence the sale of surplus bandwidth. Although the deal is expect to result in a significant windfall for the NTA, the telco is believed to be in dire financial straits and recently defaulted on a long-standing loan scheduled to be repaid to the US Rural Utility Service as well as a no-interest loan provided by the government using US Compact of Free Association funding. This marked the first time since it received the initial low-interest, long-term loan from the US agency in the mid-1990s that the NTA could not meet its monthly USD200,000 repayment; the loan has recently been used to bankroll the construction of the aforementioned cable link.
Earlier this year, in light of the NTA’s financial struggles, the Pacific Islands Development Programme reported that the Marshall Islands’ government was taking a serious look at opening up the telecoms sector to competition, with financial support from the World Bank offered as an incentive. As part of a concerted effort to encourage islands in the Pacific to embrace competition, the World Bank has reportedly offered the Marshall Islands USD13 in government budget support. In April this year finance secretary Alfred Alfred Jr commented: ‘The cabinet is keen to move forward [with ending NTA’s current monopoly] and it is something I will strongly recommend … We are almost at the goal line for the first funding’. An initial round of investment will be available as soon as the government agrees to open the telecoms market and adopts an official policy to implement it.