Reflections from Tonga
The evening of Saturday 15 January 2022 will live in the memories of Tongans for a lifetime. A powerful and explosive eruption from the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano affected all of Tonga. The disaster was catastrophic as the tsunami waves and shockwaves was evident all the way to Peru. The eruption brought heavy ashfall to all islands, causing significant damage to coastal communities. Unfortunately, these natural events damaged the undersea communications cable for Tonga. Both the international and domestic undersea cable were damaged.
With the power down the land was dark, people were hysterical and there were no communications – not even a simple call or text. The Kingdom of Tonga was completely cut off from the rest of the world. Meanwhile, people were still trying to get to higher ground to ensure safety from the tsunami. People were in desperate need to call their immediate families to make sure that everyone was safe. However, with the communications down it just made things worse. Friends and relatives from abroad who saw what had happened on the news were all trying to call Tonga to try and get a hold of their loved ones but to no avail- there was no response from Tonga.
As the sun rose on Sunday morning, the Kingdom was completely covered in dark black ash. People were panicking, still trying to process the horrific events they’ve just experienced. Many were still sitting in their vehicles out in higher grounds. Some had gone back home but those who were highly impacted had nowhere to go.
At this time, Tonga’s first resort to communications was the radio. Back to good old-school radio. Announcements were being made from the Prime Minister and relevant people from the government. The telecom operators (front liners for communications) were already at work. Leaving families behind, they were already working together as a team to get some form of communications up and operating. Hence, satellite phones were used to try make work easier.
The Telecommunicatons Cluster teamed up – TCC, Digicel Tonga, Wantok, Tonga Cable alongside MEIDECC – Men and Women were working desperately night and day trying to get satellites working. ICT Engineers and others you know who you are – all played a major role with this operation.
During the three weeks of the outage, the telecom companies were being contacted by international corporations to help assist us in any way that they can for our comms. Work was even more difficult when Omicron arrived on our shores. Engineers were out and about but very cautious to be safe to be able to return home to their loved ones.
I would like to recognise these companies and send-out a big thank you to your fellow engineers and team members for the help and support during this very difficult time. Engineers were full on, configuring various routers and switches. Some hardware was broken and not in use and needed replacement urgently. Companies like APNIC took time to ship over routers to use.
- Telstra Corp
- SPARK NZ
The repair ship, Reliance, took 20 days to replace a 92km section of the 827km submarine fibre-optic cable that connects Tonga to Fiji and other international networks. Panuve thanked telecommunications companies in neighboring Pacific islands, particularly New Caledonia, who provided lengths of cable when Tonga ran out.
With our current situation at hand, we are reminded once again that this is the second time our optic cable was cut and have total communications outage in Tonga. As a result, it is crucial that our backup resolutions are more effective. At the same time, governments and the telecommunication companies should find ways to diversify the way we communicate.
Telecom companies are looking at increasing investment and network optimisation to prepare better for a catastrophic event in the future.”
To this day we have finally got our cables fixed however, our domestic fibre is still badly destroyed. It will most likely take a year to fix, not taking into account the expenses of this work. Fortunately, we have engineers from the telecommunications companies working on backup solutions. We can now call, text and communicate with all the outer islands. Digicel Tonga is still working on getting their microwave link at Kao and Tofua to work so that we can use this for internet and communications connectivity to the outer islands.
Meanwhile, MEIDECC engineers are installing SpaceX terminals, having been distributed to Niua, Vava’u, Ha’apai and ‘Eua to get them to use this while we wait on a solution.
We are currently operating at the orange lockdown level in the Kingdom. Schools are using more online services for education at home, with e-health systems and e-government applications heavily online. Families are catching up and the internet usage now from the carriers have also been hammered once we have been back online. This is clearly shown with internet experience during peak hours – I’ve got to say it’s bad!
A big thank you once again to the Telecommunications Cluster for the dedication and on-going work. All our ISP’s , MEIDECC, Tonga Cable and most especially our collective collaborative ISP, ICT companies abroad for all your support. A special Mālō ‘Aupito to the engineers, both locally and abroad who stood in during this time -you know who you are. Your dedication and commitment is very much appreciated. Mālō ‘Aupito!
Selu is the Pacific Connect Hub Coordinator in Tonga.