Officials say it will be ‘lucky’ if repairs to undersea communications cable are completed within a month
The eruption of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano, which has killed at least three people and sent tsunami waves across the Pacific, took out communications around the Pacific island nation of about 105,000 people on Saturday.
Authorities from Tonga’s communications cable on Wednesday said while the phone lines were reconnected, full internet connectivity will likely take a month or more.
Digicel, the country’s telecom operator, has managed to restore international calling route capacity, officials said. Full network services will resume after the country’s sole undersea cable is fixed, Digicel officials said.
Officials of the state-run Tonga Cable Ltd, which operates the undersea cable, said they were expecting a specialist ship to leave from Port Moresby – the national capital of Papua New Guinea – for a repair voyage over the coming weekend.
The company’s chairman Samiuela Fonia said it will be “lucky” if the elaborate job — of sailing over eight or nine days to collect equipment in Samoa and an uncertain pitstop toward the fault in the area of eruption — is done within a month.
The task could take longer than that, Mr Fonia said.
He explained: “The cables are actually around the volcanic zone. We don’t know… whether they are intact or blown away or stuck somewhere underwater. We don’t know if it’s buried even deeper.”
Officials from the consulate of the Kingdom of Tonga – the Pacific island country’s official name – released their first statement on Tuesday after the volcanic eruption.
“Due to the damage to the international fibre optics cable, internet is down. The two communications operators are working on satellite options to restore some services including the internet,” the statement read.
It added that the administration’s priority was to ensure international calls and communication services such as emails were resumed.
Tonga’s government had been cut off without any communication with the outer islands until Monday morning, almost two days after the eruption.
Officials said limited communication had been established with the Vava’u and Ha’apai island groups through satellite phones and high frequency radio.
Tonga’s internet speed was boosted more than 30-fold in 2018 thanks to a $34m (£24.9m) cable project funded by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the World Bank.
It had become the archipelago’s only connection to the outer world.
The administration also tried to replicate an emergency satellite connection that was stalled after Tonga ran into a contract conflict with Singapore’s satellite operator Kacific.
After the eruption, however, Tonga began negotiating with Kacific to access the satellite internet connection, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said on Tuesday.
The island country will also be allowed to tap into a $10m (£7.3m) ADB relief facility upon request, said Emma Veve, the deputy director-general of the agency’s Pacific department.