Situated in the Pacific Ocean, midway between Hawaii and Australia, the Marshall Islands are an isolated and sparsely populated collection of five volcanic islands and 29 remote coral atolls. While the Islands offer much in beauty and as a popular destination for diving and marine life, the country was falling dramatically behind in ensuring all of its citizens had the connectivity needed to thrive in a modern and digitized world.
In the most remote outer islands, basic connectivity options were either severely limited or entirely unavailable. Citizens needing to register a birth, marriage, or death or apply for a passport were required to travel by boat to and from Majuro, the capital city, sometimes making multiple trips. Communication with the world outside the Islands was literally nonexistent.
Seeking a quick and economically viable approach to bringing quality connectivity to the entire country, including the most remote island locations, the country’s sole provider of telecommunications services turned to Intelsat to connect the unconnected and ultimately deliver consistent and robust connectivity for communities, schools, medical centers, and the general population.
As a longtime partner to the Marshall Islands National Telecommunications Authority (NTA), and having worked alongside the country’s ministers of health and education for more than 20 years, Intelsat had a deep knowledge of the requirements associated with building a network in the region. The team developed a multi-phase approach that would initially include using cost-efficient small cell technology to build a 2G network and establish basic voice communications across the outer islands, giving 5,000 people access to a phone for the first time. Intelsat designed the solution with NTA, purchased the equipment, and began deployment, leveraging its project management capabilities.
The team faced several challenges from the outset. In the Marshall Islands, goods of all kinds are transported between islands by 30-foot boats. With most islands separated by hundreds of kilometers, moving equipment proved to be a time-consuming and laborious undertaking.
Then came Covid. Intelsat and NTA had retained an outside contractor from Papua New Guinea to construct the cell towers. But just as project work was set to commence, the pandemic arrived and the borders were closed, eliminating the availability of outside skilled workers. Intelsat and NTA were faced with building the network themselves with the help of the local population.
Together, Intelsat and NTA navigated these challenges. Over several months, Intelsat delivered 60 small cell bay stations, a satellite hub, and VSAT equipment across the islands and atolls, all transported by boat. By the time the pandemic eased and restrictions were relaxed, most of the work to build the 2G network was completed and voice connectivity was successfully introduced across 100 percent of the country.
The project has transformed the lives of Marshall Islands citizens who, for the first time, can call a neighbor or relative or even speak with someone in another country. The presence of country-wide connectivity has also created new income opportunities and stimulated the local economy, particularly for the many women in the handicrafts trade living in the remote islands.
When a Marshallese couple gets married, they require a traditional handmade woven mat to be rolled out across the church as a symbol of health and happiness. It takes about 10 women to produce the mat which is usually 30-40 feet in length.
Shortly after the 2G network was activated, a Marshallese expatriate from Oregon returned to the country seeking a mat for a couple preparing to marry in Portland. Despite being thousands of miles from home, the couple wanted to incorporate this important tradition into their wedding ceremony to ensure their culture would be represented.
Due to the presence of newly established voice connectivity, the expatriate was able to connect with a group of women residing in one of the outer islands and arrange for the production of a mat using the dimensions and specifications provided by the marrying couple.
Thomas Kijiner, Jr., President & CEO of NTA, believes the ability of the Portland newlyweds to obtain this precious piece of their culture is an example of the power of technology.
“We have a number of Marshallese living in the U.S. They’ve been there for quite some time but still want a piece of their home and culture. The wedding mat story is an example of how technology has made it possible for our people to connect and retain our culture while dispersed around the globe.”
Since then, other women in the outer islands have been receiving orders from those living elsewhere in the world for wedding mats, resulting in increased incomes and self-sustainability, and enabling Marshallese expatriates to cling to their culture and traditions.
Intelsat’s work on the Marshall Islands is ongoing. The initial taste of connectivity almost immediately spurred greater interest among the Marshallese for broadband and internet access to stream movies, conduct online banking, and more. The second phase of the connectivity project will begin rolling out this summer to bring 3G and eventually 4G data connectivity to the entire country, including the most remote locations. Intelsat and NTA will continue to work together to meet these growing connectivity demands that will also serve to enhance education and health care.
“As a Marshallese person, I am quite proud of what we have accomplished with Intelsat to introduce 21st-century technology,” Kijiner Jr. added. “I thank Intelsat for all the support they’ve given NTA. There is certainly an appreciation for how technology has been able to connect people across the country.”