Tonga’s South Pacific archipelago could be cut off from the rest of the world for days or even weeks due to difficulties repairing the sole submarine communications cable, which one operator said was torn during a massive volcanic eruption.
The challenge highlights the fragility of submarine fiber optic cables, which have become the backbone of global communications, thanks to a capacity to carry data about 200 times that of satellites.
The explosion of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano on Saturday sent tsunami waves across the Pacific Ocean, causing loss of connection on the line, operated by Tonga Cable Ltd, in waters approximately 37 kilometers (23 miles) off the coast. coast.
But the repair of Tonga’s crucial 827 km (514 mi) fiber link to Fiji will depend on the arrival of a specialist vessel in Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea.
“Normally, if all goes well, it should take about two weeks,” said Craige Sloots, director of marketing and sales at Southern Cross Cable Network, which connects to the Tonga cable in Fiji.
That will cover the eight or nine days it will take for the Reliance, the specialized cable repair vessel in Port Moresby, to reach the affected area, while the crew will also need security clearance for the repairs, he added.
“The ability to repair would also depend, as you would expect, on volcanic activity,” Sloots, who is based in Sydney, told Reuters.
“Debugging by Fintel and Tonga Cable Ltd on Sunday afternoon appears to confirm a likely cable break,” Sloots added, referring to the Fiji telecom provider.
The Reliance, owned by US company SubCom, an underwater cable network builder and repair contractor for more than 50,000 km (31,070 miles) of cable in the South Pacific, has completed its five-year maintenance in Singapore.
It is in Port Moresby en route to its base in New Caledonia.
SubCom, owned by US private equity firm Cerberus Capital Management, said it was working with Tonga Cable Ltd to mobilize the Reliance for the cable repairs, while evaluating the safety of the crew and ship.
Repairing a break in a fiber optic cable on land is easy for an experienced technician, but repairing a break in a fiber optic cable on the seabed is much more complicated.
Cable operators must first locate the fault by seeing how far a light pulse travels through the cable before bouncing back at the break.
A repair vessel then proceeds to the site of the breach, where it sends down an underwater or deep-water hook to grab the cable and pull it up to make the repair.
GLOBAL SUBSEAL NETWORK
More than 99% of global international data traffic is still carried over a network of approximately 280 submarine cables stretching for more than one million kilometers (621,000 miles).
In 2019, Tonga spent more than a week adrift from the web when the submarine cable was damaged, reportedly by a ship anchor. After that outage, it signed a 15-year deal for satellite connectivity.
But prohibitive costs limit the use of satellites over the archipelago for most people, except for the government, officials and some businesses.
The use of satellite phones has also been affected by the ash still covering the land after the eruption.
Australian and New Zealand Banking Group Pacific spokeswoman Victoria Kanevsky said Tonga’s head, David Dudley, could only make calls on his satellite phone and receive signals when he was on the waterfront in the capital Nuku’alofa.
Digicel, an international mobile network provider, said it had set up an interim system on the main island of Tongatapu using the University of the South Pacific’s satellite dish, which would allow limited 2G coverage.
Concerned relatives abroad are still waiting for news.
“We are waiting and praying and hoping that communication will come back soon because we don’t know anything,” said Pauline Lavulo, whose husband Aqulia is pastor of the Tongan community in Sydney.
“Every Tongan … wherever we are in the world, we still have family at home.”
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