Tonga restores international connectivity after five-week outage

Tonga restores international connectivity after five-week outage

International connectivity has been restored in the Kingdom of Tonga following major damage to communication infrastructure following the Hunga Tonga–Hunga Ha’apai volcanic eruption on the 15th of January 2022.

The international submarine cable that connects Tonga to Fiji had multiple faults and breaks following the volcanic eruption and resulting tsunami. The crew of the submarine cable repair vessel, the Reliance, responsible for fixing the fibre optic cable, worked for two weeks to repair the damage. The Reliance was stationed in Papua New Guinea, 2920 miles away and took ten days to reach the Tonga Cable System. An additional challenge to the timely repair of the cable was the extent of the damage. The cable had been shredded into pieces across an 90km section.[1]

On the 22nd of February 2022, after the reconnection of the Tonga Cable System, Digicel announced that customers in Tonga again connected to the outside world as data connectivity was restored from Tonga to Fiji and then the rest of the world. Digicel was the first local operator to restore internet and call services through the satellite link and later restored services with help of international partners such as Telstra, Spark, SES and Novelsat. The domestic submarine cables connecting the Tongan islands of Vava’u and other outlying islands to the north of the Kingdom remain out of service, as of the same date. 

Just days after the disaster Mr Elon Musk, Founder, Chief Executive Officer, and Chief Engineer at SpaceX offered support to the Kingdom of Tonga through Twitter. Following further discussions with the Office of the Prime Minister, Tonga, SpaceX provided their network of low-orbit satellites called Starlink to ensure free internet access to help reconnect remote villages in outlying islands. 

Tonga’s Prime Minister Honourable Siaosi Sovaleni, said in a ceremony on Wednesday 23rd of February in the capital, Nuku’alofa, that SpaceX had set up a Starlink gateway station in Fiji and was donating 50 VSAT terminals and free capacity during the emergency period. These would be distributed to the islands worst hit by the tsunami, in the interim until Tonga Cable connects these islands with Tonga’s main island, Tongatapu.

It is rather paradoxical for a devastating volcanic eruption and tsunami to bring to our shores the latest in satellite and communications technology, Malo ‘aupito (thank you), Elon” he said in a speech broadcast by Tonga Broadcasting Commission.

Prime Minister Sovaleni is a former Minister of Communications he visited CTO Head Quarters in London in 2017 and was instrumental in ensuring The Kingdom of Tonga joined CTO as a Full Member Country (FMC).

CTO Chairman, Honourable Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, Attorney General and Minister for Economy, Civil Service, Communication and Climate Change, Fiji, tweeted Fiji’s support over the incident “The Hunga Tonga volcano’s shockwave shattered Tonga’s internet connection, adding days of gut-wrenching uncertainty to disaster assessments. A @SpaceX team is now in Fiji establishing a Starlink Gateway station to reconnect Tonga to the World. Great initiative @ElonMusk!” 

The CTO wishes the Kingdom of Tonga continued support during this time.

Tonga is a remote island nation consisting of 169 islands, of which 36 are inhabited, has a total population of over 100,000 people. The Hunga Tonga–Hunga Ha’apai volcano is located only 40 miles (65 km) north of Tongatapu, Tonga’s main island and site of the capital city, Nukuʻalofa, home to 70,000 people. 

The submarine volcano of Hunga Tonga–Hunga Ha’apai, in the Kingdom of Tonga erupted at such force on the 15th of January 2022, that it resembled a massive nuclear explosion[2]. It was the largest volcanic plume of ash recorded in the modern satellite era, rising 36 miles into the mesosphere, claimed NASA. The ash cloud towered above Tonga with a blanket of thick ash and rocks falling to pollute arable land, water tanks and coastal fishing zones. 

This explosive release of volcanic energy triggered a tsunami that caused major destruction across Tonga, with over one metre waves breaching coastal areas on the Main Island and destroying 293 homes, hotel resorts, farmland, and uprooting infrastructure. According to the Tongan government 15-metre-high waves were recorded on the small Tongan island of Mango, where 36 people live and all homes on this island were destroyed. The tsunami travelled across the Pacific to Japan, USA, and South America, causing an oil spill and drowning two people in Peru. 

Eighty percent of Tongans were affected by the aftermath of the eruption, according to reports[3] by the United Nations. With sixty percent of livestock-rearing households seeing animals perish, grazing land damaged, water supplies contaminated, or housing destroyed. The effects were felt across the whole of the kingdom. There were four people confirmed dead in Tonga due to the disaster.

[1] Tonga Cable Repair, Euronews

[2] Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha‘apai January 2022 eruption, NASA

[3] United Nations News, Tonga volcano