Tonga Cable Successfully Repaired

Tonga has been reconnected with the outside world, more than a month after the nation's internet was destroyed by a volcanic eruption.By Edwina Seselja and Richard Ewart
February 22, 2022

Tonga has been reconnected with the outside world, more than a month after the nation's international internet and phone cable was destroyed by a volcanic eruption.

Digicel Tonga said data connectivity was restored to the main island of Tongatapu and Eua this afternoon.

Prime Minister Siaosi Sovaleni told the ABC the loss of connectivity to the outside world was an “eye opener” for Tongans who relied on the cable.

“I'm pretty happy that we are back online,” Mr Sovaleni said.

“We had some capacity via satellite but nothing compared to what we're having right now with the cable being reconnected,” he said.

“It was a major task, given the amount of damage, and we thought it would be fixed a week ago.”

“It's also a learning experience on how we use communication and what communication means to us in terms of carrying out our duties.”

He said the restored cable would help Tongans stay connected with friends and family overseas.

The January 15 eruption of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai underwater volcano and subsequent tsunami severed almost all communication when it broke the cable that runs between Tonga and Fiji, which delayed international aid and assistance.

Cable ‘shattered' by eruption

Samiuela Fonua, chair of Tonga Cables Limited, said repair crew completed rejoining of the broken cable on Monday before they commenced 24 hours of testing for faults.

The cable was thought to have broken in two places, but repair crews later discovered the damage was more extensive, Mr Fonua said.

“So, in between those two breaks, the [repair] boat has now discovered that the cable was cut into pieces [and] pretty much shattered,” Mr Fonua said.

A completely new piece of cable was built to replace the length that was damaged, he said.

The long-awaited repairs were initially hindered by COVID-19 travel restrictions that delayed access to equipment in other countries, while volcanic activity prevented crews from accessing the cable site.

But the work to reconnect Tonga is not over yet.

With the international cable up and running at Tonga's main island, Tongatapu, Mr Fonua says attention has immediately turned to fixing the domestic cable, as communications to the outer-island groups of Ha'apai and Vava'u still need to be restored.

“The vessel went straight to the domestic cable just this afternoon. The whole idea now was we run some preliminary tests.”

Just weeks after the eruption and tsunami devastated Tonga, the kingdom — with a population of 100,000 people — was faced with the spread of the highly contagious Omicron strain of COVID-19.

With the country now in lockdown, Mr Fonua said being able to connect with people and access information would “mean the world” to Tongans.

“A whole lot of activities depend entirely on our connectivity,” he said.

Before this, families had been able to contact loved ones through a satellite phone line established in the days after the disaster, but its capacity was limited.

Mr Fonua said the repairs took longer than expected but he was glad see the weather was on Tonga's side, especially during cyclone season.

“We're all quite thankful and grateful that the whole operations went well and we're completed as we expected,” he said.

Will there be a backup system next time?

The cable was damaged once before in 2019 by a ship's anchor and the events of the last month have renewed calls for a backup system to be put in place for Tonga.

Mr Fonua said discussions had been ongoing before the 2019 break, but the cost remained a key issue.

“Having a cable backup, it's quite expensive and even with a satellite backup for the required capacity for Tonga, would still be very expensive,” he said.

“I think we are now being given some assistance and support from the New Zealand government and Australian government to make a full assessment of the requirements for Tonga to have enough capacity for [a] backup.”

Earlier this month Fiji's Acting Prime Minister and Attorney-General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum announced that Elon Musk's company SpaceX was in Fiji establishing a Starlink Gateway, which would provide internet connectivity through satellites, but little else is known about the work.

The ABC has contacted SpaceX for comment on the Starlink operations in Fiji.

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