Tonga: How will the internet connection be fixed?

Fibre-optic cableGetty Images

It is estimated that there are more than 430 cables around the world, spanning distances of 1.3 million km (800,000 miles)

An undersea cable which connects Tonga to the rest of the world was damaged during the eruption of a volcano earlier this month.

The undersea eruption – followed by a tsunami – led to Tonga’s 110,000 people being cut off from the rest of the world.

According to the New Zealand government, the cable could take at least four weeks to repair. Since the cable was damaged, communication on the island has been limited.

A wireless connection has been established on the main island, using a satellite dish from the University of the South Pacific but the service is patchy, and internet services run VERY slowly.

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New Zealand has offered help to Tonga

How will the internet be fixed?

According to the news agency, Reuters, a cable break has been confirmed.

The process of mending it is actually quite simple, according to engineer and vice-chairman of the European Subsea Cable Association, Peter Jamieson.

“They will send a pulse of light from the island and a machine will measure how long it takes to travel and this will establish where the break is”, he explained.

Then a cable-repair boat will be sent to the location of the first break.

It will use either an underwater vehicle or a tool known as a grapnel (basically a hook on a chain) to pull up the broken end.

That will be re-joined to fresh cable on board the boat and then the same process will happen at the other end of the break. If all goes well, the whole process will take between five and seven days!

Map of the world's sub-marine cable networkTeleGeography

This is a map of the world’s underwater cable network!

Do these cables break often?

It is estimated that globally there are up to 200 repairs carried out every year, but natural disasters causing them are rare, 90 percent of breakages come from fishing-boat nets or anchors.

In Western countries, if one cable breaks it is not a problem, because there are many others!

The UK, for example, has about 50 cables feeding data into the country. In Tonga, there was just one. “Ideally you would have at least two cables as a minimum,” said Mr Jamieson.

After an earlier cable break in 2019 – from a ship’s anchor – Tonga signed a 15-year deal to get satellite connectivity but the use of satellite phones has been affected by the volcanic ash blanketing the country.

Some people have reported they can only dial out – and not receive calls.

People living there will have to wait a bit longer before they are reconnected.

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