ADVERTISEMENT

Tonga is finally back online. Here's why it took 5 weeks to fix its volcano-damaged Internet cable

One of the many small islands of the Tonga archipelago in the Pacific Ocean.
One of the many small islands of the Tonga archipelago in the Pacific Ocean. Copyright Canva
Copyright Canva
By Tom Bateman
Share this articleComments
Share this articleClose Button

The Pacific nation lost almost all connection to the outside world after a volcanic eruption severed its only fibre optic cable in January.

ADVERTISEMENT

Just over five weeks after a volcanic eruption cut its connection to the world, Internet connectivity has been restored in Tonga.

The Pacific island nation lost almost all communications after the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai volcano erupted on January 15, severing the 827 km undersea cable that provided its Internet connection.

Tonga's fibre optic cable is one of over 400 that criss-crosses the globe, providing the backbone of our Internet infrastructure. As Tonga's experience showed, the high-speed data transfers we rely on would be all but impossible without them.

"Generally speaking, once a cable is laid, it sort of does its thing most of the time and generally doesn't warrant much further thought," said Australia National University telecommunications expert Amanda Watson.

Bruce Neilson-Watts, managing director of undersea cable maintenance and installation firm Global Marine Services (GMSL) agreed.

"The service that GMSL and our competitors provide is like the Automobile Association for subsea cables and has been a relatively well-kept secret because it works," he said.

"But incidents like this highlight the criticality that subsea cables have on our daily lives when they break and backup is limited".

How do you fix the Internet?

It's not unusual for an undersea cable to be damaged. A week before Tonga's connection was knocked out, one of two cables connecting the Arctic Svalbard archipelago to mainland Norway was also put out of action.

But when a cable goes down, repairing it can be a lengthy process.

"Subsea communications cables are damaged quite frequently and there exists a fleet of ships around the world on 24/7 standby ready to respond in the event of a fault," Neilson-Watts said.

"But if the cable ship is off repairing another cable, then there can be a wait as the cable ship completes prior work. This wait can be extended if the ship must transit a long way".

In Tonga's case, the repair ship tasked with fixing its fibre optic cable - the Reliance - was stationed in Papua New Guinea, some 4,700 km away. It took 10 days just to get to the worksite.

"It's too expensive to have this highly specialised type of vessel in Tongan waters at all times," Watson told Euronews Next. "It's got to come from wherever it is, whichever vessel they're using".

POIS Christopher Szumlanski/Australian Defence Force via AP
Australian Defence Force vessel HMAS Adelaide is docked at Nuku'alofa, Tonga, Thursday, Jan. 27, 2022, after carrying disaster relief and humanitarian aid supplies.POIS Christopher Szumlanski/Australian Defence Force via AP

Causing havoc with repairs

Another complicating factor was the way the cable broke. Undersea cables are usually damaged by human activity like fishing or accidents like an anchor being dragged across them - thought to be the cause of a 2019 internet outage in Tonga.

Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai's eruption was far more destructive, shredding an 80km section of the cable into pieces, according to Tonga Cable chief executive James Panuve.

"It is obvious that the eruption, shockwaves, [and] tsunami caused major havoc underwater," he said.

That havoc can hamper repair efforts, Neilson-Watts told Euronews Next.

"Where tectonic activity has disturbed the seabed the fibre optic cable can often become buried, making it difficult to recover and resulting in having large lengths of cable abandoned," he said.

ADVERTISEMENT

Only one cable to Tonga

The loss of Tonga's undersea cable was particularly severe as the island nation had no backup connection to fall back on.

"Where an island nation is served with just one cable, as in this case, then an outage tends to make the news, but other developed countries will tend to have at a minimum two cables, one to provide redundancy," Neilson-Watts said.

But for developing countries, particularly island nations like Tonga, that added capacity can be difficult to obtain - in large part because the companies that lay undersea cables might not see them as worthwhile customers.

Where an island nation is served with just one cable, as in this case, then an outage tends to make the news, but other developed countries will tend to have at a minimum two cables, one to provide redundancy.
Bruce Neilson-Watts
Managing Director, Global Marine Services

"By and large, it's not likely to be profitable, or make a sensible business case for a business or telecommunication company to lay a cable to Nauru, for instance," Watson said.

"This is not a unique situation. The Solomon Islands has only one cable, Niue has only one cable, and the Cook Islands has only one cable. There are some Pacific island countries that do not yet have a cable," she added.

ADVERTISEMENT

Tonga's cable, finished in 2018, was funded to the tune of $34 million (€30 million) by the Asian Development Bank and World Bank.

In Watson's view, the disastrous impact the eruption had on the single cable could spur aid donors to take further action in the future.

"The one good thing that may come out of this might be potentially getting key strategic decision-makers, such as those aid donors, sitting down at a table with specific leaders and saying, 'well, what do you really want,'" she explained.

"I think a strategic discussion about ensuring that every Pacific nation has more than one reliable communication option would be a really good, beneficial, outcome out of what's otherwise been a terrible situation for Tonga and people in the Tongan diaspora," she said.

Share this articleComments

You might also like