WELLINGTON, New Zealand -- Tonga's main island could have its internet service restored within two weeks, although it may take much longer to repair the connection to the smaller islands, a cable company official said Tuesday.
The single undersea fiber-optic cable which connects the Pacific nation to the outside world was severed 10 days ago after a huge volcanic eruption and tsunami.
That left most people unable to connect with loved ones abroad. For days, people couldn't get through on their phones, by email, or through social media.
Since then, Tonga's Digicel has been able to restore international call services to some areas by using satellite connections. Some people have been able to send emails or get limited internet connectivity.
Samieula Fonua, who chairs the board at Tonga Cable Ltd., the state-owned company which owns the fiber-optic cable, said a repair ship had left from Papua New Guinea and was due to stop over in Samoa by Monday to pick up supplies. It should then arrive in Tonga by Feb. 1.
Fonua said the CS Reliance had a crew of about 60 aboard, including engineers, divers and medical staff. He said its equipment included a robot which could assess the cable on the sea bed.
Fonua said preliminary estimates indicated the break in the cable was located about 37 kilometers (23 miles) offshore from the main island of Tongatapu. He said that all going well, the crew should be able to repair the cable by Feb. 8, restoring the internet to about 80% of Tonga's customers.
The cable runs from Tonga to Fiji, a distance of about 800 kilometers (500 miles), and was first commissioned in 2013 at a cost of about $16 million. It was financed through grants from the World Bank Group and Asian Development Bank, and increased Tonga's internet capacity fivefold.
But like many small Pacific countries, Tonga relies heavily on a single cable to stay connected and has little in the way of a back-up plan. Three years ago, a cable break believed to have been caused by a ship dragging its anchor also led to weeks of disruptions.
A second, domestic fiber-optic cable that connects Tonga's smaller islands to the main island could prove much more difficult to repair. Fonua said that cable runs near the undersea volcano which erupted and may have been severely damaged. It might need extensive repairs or even a replacement, he said.
Fonua said the focus was on fixing the main international cable, and they could deal with the domestic connections “at a later time.”
He said Tongans had been somewhat understanding of the communication disruptions caused by the disaster, which killed three people, destroyed dozens of homes and tainted water supplies with volcanic ash.
“People are calm. Coming out of a total blackout, just being able to call outside and send an email has settled them a bit,” Fonua said. “By the time they start getting more frustrated, I'm hoping we'll have the cable connected by then.”