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An undersea cable fault could cut Tonga from the rest of the world for weeks

A satellite image taken by a Japanese weather satellite shows an undersea volcano eruption at the Pacific nation of Tonga on Saturday.
Japan Meteorology Agency
via AP
A satellite image taken by a Japanese weather satellite shows an undersea volcano eruption at the Pacific nation of Tonga on Saturday.

In the aftermath of a 13-mile-wide volcanic eruption in Tonga, it could take weeks to repair an undersea communications cable that connected the South Pacific archipelago to the rest of the world.

Hunga Tonga–Hunga Ha'apai, an underwater volcano off the coast of Tonga, erupted Saturday, carrying volcanic ash nearly 20 kilometers into the air and causing tsunami waves that reached the western shores of the U.S. On Tuesday, the Tongan government confirmed three fatalities in its first official update following the eruption.

The archipelago relied on a single fiber optic cable for global communications, Reuters reported. But the cable ruptured amid the 7.6-magnitude earthquake as the volcano erupted.

"Due to the damage to the international fibre optic cable, the internet is down," according to the Tongan government's statement. "The two communications operators are working on satellite options to restore some services including the internet."

Since the eruption, internet traffic in Tonga has plummeted, according to data from Cloudflare.

Operators in Tonga will prioritize the restoration of international calling and other communications services, such as email, according to the statement. Domestic calls are also limited, according to the statement.

Repairs to the damaged cable are reliant on the arrival of a specialized ship in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea's capital, per Reuters' report.

If all goes well, it could take two weeks for it to arrive, Craige Sloots, marketing and sales director at Southern Cross Cable Network, told Reuters.

The majority of global international data traffic is carried on a network of about 280 submarine cables that stretch for more than 600,000 miles, according to Reuters.

This isn't the first time Tonga's undersea cable has been damaged. In 2019, the country was without almost all internet services for more than 10 days.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rina Torchinsky