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Tonga is expected to go a month without internet access

A general view from a New Zealand Defence Force P-3K2 Orion surveillance flight shows heavy ash fall over Nomuka in Tonga after the Pacific island nation was hit by a tsunami triggered by an undersea volcanic eruption January 17, 2022. New Zealand Defence Force/Handout via REUTERS

The owner of an undersea telecommunications cable that connects Tonga to the rest of the world said on Wednesday that it will take at least a month to repair after being damaged by a volcano eruption, with the delay potentially hindering disaster recovery operations.

The news: The explosion of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano on Saturday cut down connectivity to the archipelago, killing at least three people and sending tsunami waves across the Pacific.

What they’re saying: According to Samiuela Fonua, chairman of cable owner Tonga Cable Ltd, a specialist ship is aiming to depart from Port Moresby on a repair mission over the weekend.

  • He claimed it will be “fortunate” if the task is completed within a month because it will take eight or nine days to collect equipment in Samoa and then an unpredictable travel approaching the fault in the eruption area.
  • “It may be longer,” he said over the phone from Auckland, where he’s been overseeing the repair.
  • “The cables are located near the volcanic zone. We don’t know if they’re still alive or if they’ve been blown away or if they’ve become submerged. We have no idea if it’s buried any deeper.”

What’s going on: Meanwhile, Tongans living overseas are praying for the safety of their friends and families.

  • On Tonga’s most populous island, Digicel said its domestic network was operational and that it was currently focusing on restoring international connections. The government of Tonga and the state-owned Tonga Communications Corp. could not be reached for comment.
  • The virtual communications embargo has made relief efforts considerably more difficult, which were already challenging due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It also highlights the vulnerability of subsea fibre-optic cables, which have become the backbone of global communications.
  • The $34 million cable, funded by the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank, was completed in 2018 and increased Tonga’s internet speeds by more than 30-fold, but it is the country’s only link to the rest of the world.
  • In the middle of a contract dispute between the government and Singapore-based satellite operator Kacific, attempts to replicate an emergency satellite link set up when the same cable was severed three years ago have stalled.
  • Tonga is negotiating with Kacific, which has a satellite above the archipelago, to gain access to a satellite internet connection, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
  • Tonga Cable will have to pay SubCom, a US-based maintenance company, for the repairs. Chairman Fonua refused to give an estimate, but claimed the expense would most likely be less than $1 million.

On request, Tonga will be able to use a $10 million Asian Development Bank relief facility, according to Emma Veve, director general of the ADB’s Pacific section.

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