TODAY |

Internet back at full strength in Tonga after two-week blackout

It's been a long two weeks for Paula Taumoepeau, the president of Tonga's Chamber of Commerce. For 12-days, the country's been mostly cut off from the internet, with the kingdom's 100,000 residents plunged into digital darkness.

But, finally, on Saturday morning a full connection was restored to the main island of Tongatapu. For the first time in nearly a fortnight, people were able to check their emails, update their statuses, read the news and browse some memes.

"There's a lot of people trying to catch up today," said Mr Taumoepeau. "It's good to be back."

"We woke up to pretty good news this morning," Lopeti Senituli, a Tonga government spokesperson, said. "It's been two quiet weeks, so people are catching up on the gossip and the what-have-yous."

The blackout started on 20 January, when the underwater fibre-optic cable that connects Tonga to high speed internet was somehow severed. Internet connections were lost, as were international phone calls and the ability to process credit card payments.

A limited service was restored through the use of satellite internet, with telecommunications companies setting up hotspots at their headquarters in the capital, Nuku'alofa. With bandwidth suddenly one of the most precious commodities, officials blocked sites like Facebook and YouTube to allow essential services to squeeze through.

Long lines formed at the headquarters, Mr Taumoepeau said, as business owners queued for some precious time to place orders, respond to enquiries or process payments at painfully slow speeds.

"We were lucky to have it, but it was very slow," he said, adding that while he did not have a dollar figure, businesses had taken a significant hit. Families were hit, too, with banking and money transfer agencies unable to process remittances coming into the country from abroad.

"A lot of the people that I've talked to, some of the suppliers couldn't get their orders out in time, regular orders didn't happen," Mr Taumoepeau said. "There was a lot of disruption and we're hoping things are back to normal on Monday."

Mr Senituili, the government spokesperson, acknowledged the difficulties: "The business houses were in serious trouble, especially in the first few days. The banks, as well as the airlines, the government ministries that are responsible, for example, issuing certificates and licences, etcetera had a difficult time."

The cable -- funded by the Asian Development Bank, the World Bank and Tonga Cable Limited, a government-owned company -- was installed in 2013, connecting the country to the Southern Cross cable that links Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and the United States.

It increased internet speeds in Tonga to 10 gigabits from 20 to 30 megabits per second. But no one thought it would be susceptible to such a blackout.

"People didn't think it would come to this," said Mr Senituli. "We were actually given guarantees that the chances of damage like this happening was 0.001 percent. But then again, we've been proven wrong."

It's still not known what caused the blackout, said Timote Katoanga, the chief executive of Tonga Cable Limited.

"The only thing we know at this stage is that the cable was cut," he said.

An investigation was still underway, Mr Katoanga said, but a leading theory is that the cable was cut by a large ship dragging an anchor along the seabed. An oil tanker that was in the area at the time is a leading suspect.

The maintenance ship, Reliance, has been working for much of the past week to repair the cable, but the situation was made worse when it was discovered that the cable that connects Tongatapu with the northern islands was also broken. That cable was yet to be fixed, officials said, adding that it could still be another couple of days before the island groups of Ha'apai and Vava'u had full services again.

Still, the past two weeks has made clear how easy it is for Tonga -- and many other Pacific countries which also rely on a single submarine cable - to be cut off from the outside world, and how unprepared they are for such an occurence.

Mr Taumoepeau said the business community would be seeking assurances that everything was being done to reduce the chance of such an outage, and that contingencies were in place. While Mr Senituli said it was likely the government would be seeking answers from Tonga Cable Limited soon.

"When we are actually reliant on technology that is being provided from the outside, we have to rely on what they do provide us," said Mr Senituli. "But at the same time, it's make sure that we have fallbacks that are ready to kick in when serious damage like this happens."

Mr Katoanga said satellite services would like be retained as a backup, and Tonga Cable was also in the early stages of scoping the possibility of a second cable to connect Tonga, but that would be some years off.

In the meantime, he said he was confident that the full service that was finally restored on Saturday would be here to stay.

"I think I'm confident that so far the project has been running smoothly, there's no hiccup at this stage. I'm confident the ship has done a very good job repairing the damage to the cables."

By Jamie Tahana 

RNZ.CO.NZ

Man using smartphone in Tonga.
Man using smartphone in Tonga. Source: istock.com