Tonga faces two separate cable cuts after massive volcano
Tonga Cable, the sole physical link to the south Pacific island group, was cut at the weekend by a massive volcano.
Attempts are already under way to repair it, but Dean Veverka, networks director of Southern Cross Cable Network, told the AFP news agency that a repair will take “up to two weeks”.
He said the nearest repair ship is in Port Moresby, capital of Papua New Guinea, 4,000km away.
“We’re getting sketchy information, but it looks like the cable has been cut,” said Veverka.
Part-owner Digicel told Capacity this morning “that there are two separate undersea cable breaks”. But it has established satellite connections to Tonga as a back-up. “Digicel’s engineers and the technical team worked round the clock to get its satellite link up,” said the company.
The first fault is between Tonga Cable’s cable landing station Sopu, Tongatapu, and the Fintel cable landing station in Suva, Fiji. “The international cable break is approximately 37km offshore from Tonga,” said Digicel.
“The second cable break is on the domestic cable although near the area of the recent volcanic activity.” This is the 410km Tonga Domestic Cable Extension, which connects the main island, Nuku’alofa, with two outlying islands to the north, Neiafu and Pangai.
Cable ship Reliance “has been activated to undertake a full fault assessment as well as determine the safety of a possible cable repair”.
Maritime tracking services show that this ship is still anchored offshore of Port Moresby.
Digicel regional CEO, Shally Jannif, said: “We know how vital it is at times like this that we keep people connected. We take that responsibility very seriously and are focused on doing everything we can to ensure people are able to communicate and link up with loved ones in these difficult times.”
The Tonga Cable (pictured, submarinecablemaps.com) went into service in August 2013, running 827km from Fiji. Owned by Digicel, the Tonga Communications Corporation and the government of Tonga, it is the only cable link to the islands, which have a population of 105,000. Tonga Cable’s own website is down.
Capacity has contacted both ASN, which built the cable, and a number of subsea cable consultants about the situation.
In October 2021 Digicel agreed to sell its Pacific interests, in Tonga and other countries, to Telstra of Australia for US$1.6 billion, mostly through funds from the government of Australia. That deal is expected to be completed by the end of the current quarter.
Télécoms sans Frontières (TSF), the industry’s charity that helps aid organisations when there is a disaster, says it is in contact with the Emergency Telecommunications Cluster (ETC), a global network of organisations that work together to provide shared services in humanitarian emergencies, and with the regional response mechanisms.
TSF told Capacity: “But for the moment there is no possibility to access the affected area. However, we are exploring the possibility to provide remote assistance and we are closely monitoring the situation.”
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the resulting tsunami had caused “significant damage”, and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) told the BBC that up to 80,000 Tongans could be affected – but, without communications, it is hard to know.
One of the nearest island communities, the Cook Islands, used SES’s O3b medium Earth orbit (MEO) satellites before the Manuata Cable went into service in July 2020. “Fortunately Cook Islands is generally outside of direct seismic threat,” said Ranulf Scarbrough, CEO of Avaroa Cable, the Cook Islands company that is one of the partners in Manuata.
The Manatua cable “has not been affected”, he added. “Manatua is still up though in both directions and we are continuing to monitor,” said Scarbrough, who was on his way to the Pacific Telecommunication Council (PTC) meeting in Hawaii when Capacity contacted him on Sunday. I “will see if there is any wider impact” at PTC, he added.
Capacity has contacted SES and other satellite services to find out what connections are available for Tonga. In 2019 Kacific Broadband Satellites signed a 15-year agreement with Tonga Satellite, a Tongan government company, to provide high speed broadband via satellite.
This is the second time that the Tonga Cable has been cut. The last time was in January 2019, when the alleged cause was a ship’s anchor. “This will heighten call for a backup cable, which has been talked about for a while,” said Scarbrough.
Spark, the former Telecom New Zealand, said that it is “waiving all charges for calls to Tonga from Spark landlines or mobiles until next Sunday [23 January]”, though it added: “We know immediate contact may not be possible, due to infrastructure damage in Tonga.”
However the news that Digicel is now using a partial satellite backup means that some calls should get through.