Undersea cable cuts off Tonga from the internet world

Image credit: Nina Janesikova | shutterstock.com

SYDNEY (Reuters) – The South Pacific nation of Tonga has been all but cut off from the internet this week after an undersea cable connecting the archipelago to the wider world was severed twice on Sunday, throwing communications across the tiny and isolated country into chaos.

The outage, which the cable’s owner said may have been caused by a ship’s anchor, also knocked out overseas phone calls and is hampering money transfers, airline bookings, university enrolments as well as Facebook connections to family and friends.

In the capital, Nuku’alofa, a satellite dish was hastily mounted on Monday to provide limited and slow backup connectivity, prompting hundreds of people to queue outside a government telecom office where the signal is most reliable.

“It’s like going back to the beginning of the internet,” Tonga police spokeswoman Sia Adams said on the phone.

“You just wait for your turn to have your 20 minutes to access…it’s currently hot here in Tonga at the moment but they’ve put up a tent outside, with chairs, so people can wait.”

Hours have been extended to midnight to handle crowds of officials, business people and ordinary folk logging on to access cash remittances, buy plane tickets and “just chat” said Filimone Iloa, an employee at Tonga Communications Corporation.

The problem illustrates the vulnerability of undersea fibre-optic cables, which with a data-carrying capacity some 200 times that of satellites have become the backbone of global communications. Broken cables left Somalia without internet for weeks in 2017 and cut off parts of Egypt and India in 2008. 

“I have a hotel and I have no idea who’s booked on Booking.com or Expedia,” said Kjell Stave, who owns the Mystic Sands hotel in the Vava’u archipelago in northern Tonga and cannot connect.

Airlines were also unable to tell if flights were overbooked until passengers showed up, he added.

Tonga’s cable, which joins the country to trans-Pacific internet wires at Suva in Fiji, was severed in two spots within about 10 km (6.2 miles) of Tonga’s shoreline on Sunday night, Paula Piveni Piukala, director at cable owner Tonga Cable Ltd told Reuters.

“We haven’t really ascertained the cause, but most likely it was a boat with an anchor has dragged the cable, or something of this sort,” he said.

Piukala happened to be at a telecom industry meeting in Hawaii when the breaks occurred, and so was able to quickly arrange the backup satellite link, though he said it could only provide about a tenth of the cable’s capacity.

“The main connectivity to the outside world was through the cable,” he said, adding a repair ship was preparing to leave from Samoa and could fix the problem in a week or two, weather permitting. 

(By Tom Westbrook; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)

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