Tonga could be cut off for weeks after eruption damaged undersea cable

Tonga could be cut off for weeks after eruption damaged undersea cable
Further volcanic activity could threaten efforts to repair Tonga’s only international communications cable

Tonga could be cut off from the rest of world for weeks due to difficulties in repairing its sole undersea communications cable, which was ruptured during the eruption of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano.

Three people have been confirmed dead while all the homes on one of the Pacific nation’s small outer islands – Mango Island – were destroyed in the massive volcanic eruption, the government said on Tuesday in its first statement since the disaster hit.

The eruption sent tsunami waves across the Pacific Ocean damaging connectivity in the cable operated by state-owned Tonga Cable Ltd, in waters about 37 kilometres (23 miles) offshore. This has hugely hampered updates on the scale of the disaster.

The repair of Tonga’s critical 827 km fibre-optic link to Fiji depends on the arrival of a specialised ship now days away in Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea.

Samiuela Fonua, the chairperson of Tonga Cable Ltd which owns and operates the cable, said continuing volcanic activity was a risk to any repair ship, which would need to enter the Tongatapu waters close to the site of the eruption.

“We are just going through our preparations for the repair operation to start possibly next week,” he told the Guardian. “With luck we can have our cable ready within the next two weeks.

“The main concern now is with the volcanic activities because our cables are pretty much on the same zone.”

Craige Sloots, marketing and sales director at Southern Cross Cable Network, which connects to the Tonga cable at Fiji agreed with Mr Fonua’s estimation.

“Typically, all things going well, it would take around two weeks,” said Mr Sloots.

A satellite image shows ash covered homes and buildings after the main eruption of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano

That covers the eight or nine days the Reliance, the specialist cable repair ship in Port Moresby, will take to reach the affected area, while the crew also needs safety clearance for the repairs, he added.

“Its ability to repair would also be dependent, as you would expect, on any volcanic activity,” Mr Sloots, who is based in Sydney, told Reuters.

“Fault-finding by Fintel and Tonga Cable Ltd on Sunday afternoon seems to confirm a likely cable break,” added Mr Sloots, referring to Fiji’s telecoms provider.

In its first update since the eruption, the Tongan government said the internet was down due to the cable damage, but some local phone services were available and work was underway to restore full communications.

The challenge underlines the vulnerability of undersea fibre-optic cables, which have become the backbone of global communications, thanks to a capacity to carry data that is about 200 times that of satellites.

The Reliance, owned by US firm SubCom, a builder of underwater cable networks that is the repair contractor for more than 50,000 km of cable in the South Pacific, is in Port Moresby en route to its base in New Caledonia.

SubCom said it was working with Tonga Cable Ltd to mobilise the Reliance for the repairs, while it evaluated crew and ship safety.

The government said a 65-year-old woman, a 49-year-old man and British woman Angela Glover were killed in the tsunami, while several others were injured.

The Tongan navy has been deployed with health teams and water, food and tents to the Ha’apai islands, with more aid sent on Tuesday due to the severity of the damage observed on Mango, Fonoifua and Namuka islands.

Tonga is expected to issue formal requests for aid soon but in the meantime New Zealand said two ships, HMNZS Wellington and HMNZS Aotearoa, had set off with water supplies, survey teams and a helicopter.

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