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Volcano Cuts Communication With Island Kingdom

21 Jan 2022
By Dr Amanda H A Watson and Dr Gemma Melvena Malungahu
View of the plume from an underwater volcanic eruption near Tonga in the South Pacific on 15 January 2022 from the Japanese Himawari 8 weather satellite. Source: Stuart Rankin

A devastating volcanic eruption in the Pacific Ocean has left family members unable to communicate for days. In Tonga, the population of more than 100,000 people remains without internet access.

An enormous volcanic eruption 500 times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb shook the Pacific Island nation of Tonga on Saturday and caused a tsunami alert in many countries. Saturday, 15 January 2022 will remain a memorable date for all Tongans across the globe. The Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha‘apai volcano approximately 30 kilometres from Tonga’s main Fonuafo‘ou Island erupted and shook the entire nation. Earlier eruptions in 2009 and 2014/2015 were dwarfed by Saturday’s eruption. Volcanologists predict continual eruptions from the site.

Undersea Cable Damage

Tonga has just one undersea communications cable connecting it to the rest of the world. The cable travels on the sea floor from Tonga to Fiji. It carries international telephone calls and internet traffic, such as emails, social media posts, and web page downloads. The cable was damaged at the time of the volcanic eruption and has not been functional since. This means that people in Tonga have not been able to make telephone calls to numbers in other countries. Nor do they have internet access.

The cable is owned and operated by a consortium of three entities: the Tongan government, the Tonga Communications Corporation, and the telecommunication company Digicel. The head of Tonga Cable has said that the international cable has been severed in two places. In addition, a domestic cable connecting the country’s main island to other islands has been damaged not far from the capital city Nuku’alofa.

On Wednesday evening, 19 January 2022, Digicel announced that it had restored international telephone calls. Until Digicel’s update, the only means of communication between Tonga and the outside world was through satellite telephones, such as the one at the Australian High Commission in Tonga. These are uncommon and are expensive to purchase and use. Internet access remains unavailable in Tonga. Mobile telephones are working within Tonga.

Losing communication with family and loved ones in Tonga has been devastating and heartbreaking for members of the Tongan diaspora in Australia, New Zealand, and elsewhere. They have not been able to find out whether their family members were safe. Families in the diaspora have tried to contact relatives to no avail. In Australia, community groups and individuals have reached out to the Tongan High Commission in Australia and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to seek answers to their questions regarding the safety of their loved ones. Due to Digicel’s restoration of international calls, more and more Tongans in the diaspora will be able to reconnect with their loved ones.

Cable Repair Timeframe

Tonga’s first and only international undersea internet cable was laid in 2013. It was funded by the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, a Tongan state-owned telecommunication company, and Digicel. The cable was laid by Alcatel Submarine Networks — part of Nokia — which is a Finland-listed company. At the time, it was hoped that the new cable would reduce the cost of the internet for the people of Tonga. Until then, internet access had been available solely through satellite technology.

In 2019, Tonga had no internet service when the international undersea cable was inoperable due to damage. The cable was broken in two places, allegedly by a ship’s anchor. There was a subsequent court case about the occurrence. It took about a fortnight to repair the cable. During those two weeks, people in Tonga had no internet access.

As the earlier outage took a fortnight to repair, initial estimates suggested that the current situation might be resolved in a similar timeframe. However, any further eruptions may delay such efforts. Volcanologists expect more volcanic activity in the near future — likely in the coming days, weeks, and months. Such activity would hamper efforts to fix the damage to the international cable, as well as the domestic cable linking Tonga’s islands. The Tongan government and telecommunication companies have indicated that they’re working to restore services, but the timeframe remains unclear.

Resilience and Prayers 

Among members of the Tongan diaspora unable to communicate with those in Tonga, there has been an outpouring of support and love. Tongan people have come together on social media platforms to show their solidarity and support for one another through prayer and song. Pasifika TV & Radio, a Brisbane-based news and social media platform, has provided Tongan people with the opportunity to call in and share their views and experiences. Her Royal Highness Princess Angelika Lātūfuipeka Halaevalu Mataʻaho Napua-o-kalani Tukuʻaho addressed her people, stating that it is important that they turn to God during this difficult time. Tongan community members have found solace in prayer sessions live on air.

Despite the reconnection of international calls to and from Digicel mobile handsets in Tonga, communication difficulties remain. It seems that internet services in Tonga, and communication with Tonga using internet-based mediums such as social media, will continue to be unavailable for some days. In the medium-term, after communication services are restored, there may be an opportunity to consider the establishment of backup systems, in case of future outages.

Dr Amanda H A Watson is a Research Fellow with the Department of Pacific Affairs at Australian National University. Her research focuses on telecommunications in the Pacific region. Dr Watson follows regulatory issues and monitors mobile internet prices and speeds. Her PhD thesis looked at the uptake and use of mobile telephones during the earliest days of mobile telephone adoption in Papua New Guinea.

Dr Gemma Melvena Malungahu is a Tongan Research Fellow with the Department of Pacific Affairs at Australian National University. She completed her PhD in 2020 at the University of Auckland. Her PhD research explored the experiences and perspectives of Tongan families with rheumatic fever in South Auckland with regard to housing and housing policy. Her research interests include Pacific health, Tongan peoples in the diaspora, migration, public health, equity and access to health care.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.