Tonga’s domestic subsea fiber cable that was destroyed in a volcanic eruption could take up to a year to repair if a spare cable can’t be sourced from other companies.

In January, a large underwater volcano erupted close to Tonga, triggering tsunamis reaching heights of almost three feet in places. Both the international Tonga Cable – laid in 2013 and running 827km to Fiji – and the Tonga Domestic Cable connecting the islands of Vavaʻu, Lifuka, and Tongatapu were damaged.

Though the island nation’s international cable is now repaired, Tonga Cable chief executive James Panuve told Matangi Tonga that up to 110km of cable may have to be manufactured in France to fix the domestic cable if it can't source a spare cable of the same type elsewhere.

tonga digicel.jpg
– Digicel

Though the cable ship Reliance has successfully recovered both ends of the domestic cable, there is a gap of around 110km between the two broken ends.

“It has attempted to recover the middle section but it appears that the cable has been deeply buried under debris from the volcano eruption of 15 January. Without proper survey equipment, it is hard to tell what has happened to the cable system. Water depth in this area is between 1.6 to 1.8km," said Panuve.

He added the ship will provide Tonga Cable with a more detailed report on their findings, but estimates that the company might need all 110km replacing.

"The other problem is that this cable type is not easily sourced and none of our neighboring cable operators have any of this cable type. We are looking worldwide for anyone with spare cable of this type, failing which, we will need to order it from Alcatel in France, which could take 6-9 months to manufacture and deliver. But as with most things, I think it would be safe to bet on a year," he said.

More than 50km of the international cable was damaged in the eruption – more than Tonga cable had aboard the Reliance. Panuve said three companies donated spare cable that they had on the ship.

Panuve also said the International Cable Protection Committee (ICPC) is interested in sending a research vessel to do a survey of the Hunga Ha'apai area and the cable system to see what the seabed looks like in the wake of the eruption.

“This may be of great assistance for Tonga Cable in understanding what happened to our two cable systems and possibly whether it is safe to relay our domestic cable on its original path. If successful, the research vessel may be visiting our waters in March or April of this year,” he noted.

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