When underwater volcano Hunga-Tonga Hunga-Ha’apai erupted on January 15, it shattered the backbone of Tonga’s internet infrastructure: a single undersea cable connecting the archipelago to the global internet. A tsunami followed, then four days of near-total communications blackout as the nation’s two mobile phone carriers scrambled to restore service, hampered by the massive clouds of ash lingering in the air.

The repair was much more complex than anyone expected. As a storm battered the ship, a repair crew painstakingly pieced together more than 90 kilometers of cable — over 10% of its entire length — while navigating deep waters with a remotely-operated vehicle to find the broken ends. The cable, and Tonga’s access to the world, took five weeks to fix. 

“We had to ask around for the remaining pieces to make up the required length,” Samiuela Fonua, then-chairman of state-owned operator Tonga Cable, told Rest of World in February. By chance, the repair ship sent from Port Moresby was carrying cable length for multiple operators, who were willing to contribute. Fonua describes the resulting patch as a “mini-system” made of “pieces of spare cables connected together to form one long cable.” 

More than four months later, Tonga is still not fully reconnected. While life in the capital of Nufu’aloka has stabilized, two island groups, Ha’apai and Vava’u, remain cut off – apart from patchy satellite service – until the domestic link that runs between islands can be repaired, which could take a year. Residents of Tonga are frustrated with the delayed response, and the government’s lack of a backup plan should the cable fail again. After the simultaneous blows of a natural disaster, internet blackout, and the arrival of Tonga’s first Covid-19 wave, some residents told Rest of World that they felt that daily life had changed permanently.

“Nothing has been the same ever since,” said Hauoli Vi, former leader of the National Women’s Council and a prominent community figure in Nufu’aloka.

Days after the cable break, Tonga saw its first community spread of Covid-19, first detected in port workers helping distribute foreign aid. As new cases jumped into the hundreds per day – low on a global scale, but a worry for an island-nation reeling from a natural disaster – schools and businesses went into hard lockdown. Tonga’s national borders had slammed shut against Covid-19 in 2020, making the internet more crucial than ever as a link to the outside world.

The blockage of cross-border payments “basically [became] a bottleneck for the economy of Tonga,” said Sela Latailakepa, a Nufu’aloka business-owner and agent for MoneyGram, one of the two most-used transfer services for overseas remittances in Tonga. “There [was] just no internet connection, and we’re not able to provide our services, because we ourselves have no connection.” 

This wasn’t the first time that a cable failure had cut Tonga off from international communications. In 2019, Tongans went two weeks without internet after the cable was severed by a boat’s anchor. The realities of geography mean even before the volcano’s eruption, Tonga’s residents live with one foot in the world wired by the internet, and one foot in a world where it’s possible to lose contact with overseas relatives for days at a time. Tongans’ closest neighbors can live days’ boat rides away across the archipelago, which spans nearly 700,000 square kilometers of the Pacific. 

The repair took “bloody far too long,” Vi said, describing an every-person-for-themselves approach to getting online in the months after the earthquake. “I thought there was already a Plan B in place after [the earthquake in 2019]. … Obviously, there was no plan.” 

When the government proposed a backup solution of a second subsea cable in January, it was met with ridicule by many Tongans, who reasoned that another natural disaster would likely affect both. A government official defended the choice to Rest of World, saying that two cables were more cost-effective than the alternative of a satellite. 

Tonga is one of the few countries in the world that depends on a single cable. But the Pacific, where people live on thousands of islands across hundreds of thousands of kilometers of open ocean, is known in the industry for its “thin routes” – meaning that private companies don’t see enough returns for the investment to add up. That leaves connectivity in the country dependent on the interest of outside investors, development institutions, and aid programs. 

“Submarine cables are not cheap to build,” said Craige Sloots, an executive at Southern Cross Cable Network, which operates the largest existing set of trans-Pacific cables and shares a landing station in Fiji with Tonga Cable. “Getting a second cable obviously does provide another level of redundancy, but is harder to justify from a pure commercial business case point of view.”

In the weeks following the break, Tonga leaned on outside support. The ship that arrived at the site, CS Reliance, is one of just a few dozen in the world. Despite an ongoing dispute with the Tongan government over a previous contract, Singaporean satellite provider Kacific was one of the first to provide backup connectivity in Tonga; U.S.-based Intelsat and Luxembourg-based SES also pitched in to help provide satellite support. Elon Musk offered Starlink terminals, though they weren’t activated before the main cable was repaired.

"Submarine cables are not cheap to build."

More permanent solutions have, similarly, been offered when they align with the interests of international partners. In the last three years, three cables – a Coral Sea cable, a Palau cable, and one through east Micronesia – were all offered first as investments by Chinese entities before the Australian government took an interest, said Bart Hogeveen, head of cyber capacity building at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Canberra. After reports surfaced that China Mobile was in talks to acquire Digicel’s Pacific operations last year, the Australian government stepped in to jointly finance a takeover with Australian telco Telstra. 

Telusa Tu'i'onetoa, a doctoral researcher who has spent sixteen years working on disaster relief in Tonga, said the country needed to accept any help that is offered. “The government is trying their best, but the capacity is just very slim,” Tu'i'onetoa told Rest of World. Future aid and investments should center what Tongans actually need, rather than what’s easy for outside entities to give, said Tu'i'onetoa. “Sometimes it’s all about, ‘We’re your neighbors, we have to do something.’” 

Things have changed in the meantime, some said. “After the reconnection and Covid-19, businesses are more online than they were before the disruption,” said a government official who works with Tonga’s internet regulator, who requested anonymity, as they were not authorized to speak to media.

“A lot of changes happened when we went offline,” the official added. “People now appreciate the internet and all the work it does for us – work, school, business, and all.”