Sat. Aug 13th, 2022

Tongans have been quick to reconnect with loved ones overseas and access social media, while online businesses are preparing for a reboot now the nation’s international internet cable and phone lines are up and running.

Tonga’s sole undersea fiber-optic cable was restored on Tuesday, five weeks after it was destroyed by the eruption of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano in mid-January.

International communication is not available to everyone, with Tonga’s outer islands of Vava’u and Ha’apai still out of reach due to ongoing issues with the domestic cable.

But for those living on Tonga’s main island of Tongatapu, the reconnection has been welcome news.

‘Not a single Tongan slept early that evening’

Olive Mafi, 28, works with the Tonga National Youth Congress and studies law online part-time in the capital Nuku’alofa. However, the damage to the international cable made it virtually impossible to do either.

“To sum up how it felt for me personally, I literally felt lost and fearful,” she said.

“My mother was stranded in the outer islands so I was the only one of my relatives left on the main island, Tongatapu.”

A satellite image of the Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha'apai volcano that shows plumes of volcanic ash.
The Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano, which erupted last month.(Supplied: Satellite image © 2022 Maxar Technologies)

Ms Mafi said when the internet was restored, there was a sense of hope that life in Tonga was starting to return to normal.

“I can bet that every single Tongan was connected that [night]”she said.

“Not a single Tongan slept early that evening [when] the connection was restored.

Ms Mafi said for young people especially, social media and online connectivity was a huge part of their daily lives.

“Sharing and laughing and even joking with your friends and families [is] only a click away, so to have that abruptly stop, we say to ourselves, ‘What now?’ “she said.

“It was very, very difficult to adapt. But I guess change to any extent is challenging.”

A young woman with a flower in her hair.
Ms Mafi says she felt lost when Tonga was shut off from the outside world.(Supplied: Olive Mafi)

Ms Mafi said, as well as the disruption to their lives, there was collective trauma in the community following the volcanic eruption.

“January 15, 2022, is a memory we will probably never forget – the fear and just [the] hopelessness that we felt, “she said.

“I mean, where do we run? Where can we hide?”

‘We could not do anything’

Talai Tangifua, the founder of an online platform called Ez Tonga which allows people around the world to order things such as food and fuel for their families in Tonga, said having the internet restored meant people were able to “breathe a little easier” and would improve the focus on “getting things back to normal”.

“One thing that you must understand is that it’s part of our culture to give back,” Mr Tangifua said.

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The eruption sent enormous plumes of smoke and ash high into the atmosphere.

“So often families or members of the families who’ve left Tonga to go either study or work or live overseas… they send money home… to help with the day-to-day living [expenses]. “

He said the wait for the Pacific nation to come back online was a nervous time for the company.

A close up of a man smiling.
Talai Tangifua says he can breathe easy now the cable has been repaired.(Supplied: Talai Tangifua)

“[I was] extremely worried, not only in terms of businesses but also looking after our customers around the world, “he said.

“We could not do anything because our business heavily relied on a digital world.”

Mr Tangifua said the company adapted and started receiving and placing orders through text messages, which allowed customers to also share personal messages with their loved ones as part of the deliveries in Tonga.

“So we were kind of a second means of communication during this period,” he said.

Loved ones overseas ‘very relieved’ to reconnect

After an anxious wait, Canberra-based Tongan woman Lupe Fisiikaile said she was “very relieved” when she was finally able to get through to her family.

“To see messages coming through, especially for my mother, was really good,” she said.

“I had been able to speak to her a few times over the phone but the connection was not very good.

A woman smiles in front of a green wall.
Ms Fisiikaile is relieved to have long conversations with her mother and not worry if the phone connection will cut out.(Supplied: Lupe Fisiikaile)

“The phone connection has improved over the past week, so it was good to actually just talk and not rush in case the phone gets disconnected again.”

She said not being able to send financial assistance after the disaster or during the subsequent COVID-19 lockdowns was very stressful.

Ms Fisiikaile said now the battle was sharing the bandwidth as the phone lines were flooded with calls and messages from people around the world.

A map illustrating all the undersea cables in the South Pacific.
The cable that runs between Tonga and Fiji was severed by the volcanic eruption.(Supplied: Dr. Amanda Watson and CartoGIS ANU)

Until the repairs, the 100,000 residents of Tonga had been reliant on makeshift satellite services for internet access and phone calls.

Dean Veverka, chief technology officer and vice-president of Operations at Southern Cross Cables – the company behind the repairs – said the damage was more extensive than first thought.

“First it was hard to find and then once when we started pulling it up, it was coming up in bits and pieces. So a whole new system’s been laid out and laid into the ocean.”

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How a lone internet cable connected Tonga to the world

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