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Damaged Undersea Cable Causes Near-Total Internet Blackout in Island Nation Tonga

The island has just one submarine cable that provides internet access for the entire island.
Tonga island as seen from the ocean
Image: Wikipedia

If you freak out when your Wi-Fi goes down for 10 minutes, welcome to your nightmare. The entire nation of Tonga is currently experiencing a near-total internet blackout thanks to damage to the sole underwater cable that supplies internet to the island.

The blackout began on January 20 after a nasty storm and suspected lightning strike knocked out the underwater cable that provides internet connection to Tonga from Fiji. While there is some very limited connectivity available through satellite internet, it’s nowhere near sufficient to provide the normal access that the island of 100,000 is used to.

“Submarine cables are expensive endeavors,” said Doug Madory, Director of Internet Analysis at for Oracle Internet Intelligence. “Cable builds for island nations are referred to as ‘thin routes; in the business because of the small amount of revenue they would potentially generate. Therefore, it becomes difficult to build a business case for [multiple cables to] thin routes like Tonga and the cables can’t be built without financial assistance from organizations like the Asian Development Bank and World Bank.”

To repair the damage, a cable repair ship—of which there are only a couple dozen globally, Madory said—will need to sail over to Tonga and start work, which could take weeks. In the meantime, the island’s economy is greatly strained by the lack of connectivity and officials are considering blocking access to nonessential sites, like Facebook, the island’s cable company said.

"We've been informed that 80% of our international traffic is from social media," Tonga Cable director Paula Piukala told Radio New Zealand. "We may block Facebook, YouTube and stuff like that in the meantime so that we can maximise the small bandwidth that we have from satellite on what is important to the country."