Tonga residents began to finally see some lights at the end of the tunnel on Tuesday, with internet services jumping back online for the first time in five weeks after a massive volcanic eruption ripped apart the country’s sole subsea fibre optic cable. The repair marks a significant recovery milestone for the country, which was the site of the horrific eruption causing mass evacuations, widespread electricity loss, and a nationwide internet outage.
In a blog post confirming the repair, Digicel, one of the island’s two main telecommunications companies, claimed the cable had multiple faults and that a submarine repair vessel had spent more than two weeks conducting repairs. Damage from the eruption reportedly affected an 80-kilometre stretch of the 830-kilometre long cable, according to the BBC.
Monitoring data from web infrastructure company Cloudflare meanwhile showed a dramatic spike in Tongan internet activity on Tuesday. According to Cloudflare, internet traffic in the region started to increase to levels even prior to the eruption a little after midnight local times.
“We have leant [sic] some tough lessons and we know how important internet connection is to our people,” Digicel Tonga CEO, Anthony Seuseu said. “The recent incident has also provided the opportunity to our team to look at increased investment and network optimisation to plan and prepare better for a catastrophic event of such nature in the future.”
The repairs took about a week longer than previously expected. Crucial government services and some businesses were able to connect using satellite internet in the interim, but that solution was limited and lacked fibre’s speed and stability. Early on during the outage, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk publicly sought out Tongan officials to explore the possibility of using his company’s Starlink satellite internet service to bring some residents online. Reports earlier this month claimed a SpaceX team had arrived in Fiji to establish a Starlink gateway station, but it’s unclear how effective those efforts actually were.
Could people from Tonga let us know if it is important for SpaceX to send over Starlink terminals?— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) January 21, 2022
While the cable repair serves as a major win for Tongans seeking some sense of normality following the historic eruption, the work is far from over. Domestic cables connecting Tonga’s main island to its surrounding neighbours bore the worst damage from the storm and could take six to nine months to repair, Tonga Cable Chief Executive James Panuve said in a statement to Reuters.
“We don’t have enough cable.”