Internet on main island of Tonga cut by volcano could be restored in 2 weeks

WELLINGTON, New Zealand – Tonga’s main island could have internet service restored within two weeks, although it could take much longer to repair connectivity to the smaller islands, a cable company official said Tuesday.

The only undersea fiber optic cable connecting the Pacific nation to the outside world was severed 10 days ago after a massive volcanic eruption and tsunami.

This left most people unable to connect with their loved ones abroad. For days, people couldn’t get through by phone, email, or social media.

Since then, Digicel in Tonga has been able to restore international call service in some areas using satellite links. Some people could send emails or get limited internet connection.

Samieula Fonua, chief executive of Tonga Cable Ltd., the state-owned company that owns the fiber optic cable, said a repair ship had departed from Papua New Guinea and would stop in Samoa until Monday to pick up supplies. It should then arrive in Tonga by February 1st.

Fonua said the CS Reliance has a crew of about 60 on board, including engineers, divers and medical staff. He said the equipment included a robot that could assess the cable on the seabed.

Fonua said preliminary estimates showed the broken cable was about 37 kilometers (23 miles) off the coast of the main island of Tongatapu. He said if all goes well, the crew should be able to fix the cable by February 8 and restore internet to about 80% of Tonga’s customers.

The cable runs from Tonga to Fiji a distance of approximately 800 kilometers (500 miles) and was first commissioned in 2013 at a cost of approximately US$16 million. Funded by grants from the World Bank Group and the Asian Development Bank, it quintupled Tonga’s internet capacity.

But like many small Pacific countries, Tonga relies heavily on a single cable to stay connected and has little backup plan. Three years ago, a broken cable, believed to have been caused by a ship lying at anchor, also led to weeks of disruption.

A second, domestic fiber optic cable connecting Tonga’s smaller islands to the main island could prove much more difficult to repair. Fonua said cables run near the underwater volcano, which erupted and may have been badly damaged. It could require extensive repairs or even a replacement, he said.

Fonua said the focus is on repairing the international main cable and they could take care of the domestic links “at a later date”.

He said Tongans had some understanding of the disrupted communications caused by the disaster, which killed three people, destroyed dozens of homes and contaminated water supplies with volcanic ash.

“People are calm. Coming out of a total blackout, being able to just call outside and email them put her mind at ease a bit,” Fonua said. “I hope we’ll have the cable hooked up by then if they get more frustrated.”

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