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Elon Musk’s help requested to reconnect Tonga to the internet

A New Zealand lawmaker has asked SpaceX chief Elon Musk to help Tonga restore connectivity after Saturday’s massive volcanic eruption severed the only cable connecting it to the internet.

In a letter sent earlier this week and shared on Twitter on Thursday, Dr. Shane Reti asked Musk about the possibility of using SpaceX’s satellite-based Starlink internet service to get the tiny Pacific nation back online now, rather than waiting about a month for the cable to be repaired.

With overseas friends and relatives desperate for news of their loved ones’ safety, getting Tonga reconnected to the outside world is an urgent matter.

Musk has yet to reply to Reti’s request, which he sent on Monday. “I guess Elon Musk can only say no and if you don’t ask you don’t know,” the lawmaker said in a message accompanying the letter.

I guess Elon Musk can only say no and if you don't ask you don't know. After the Minister told me in a phone call on Monday that the telecommunications cable to Tonga was down I immediately sent a letter to Elon to see if he would contribute Starlink to the emergency

— Dr Shane Reti (@DrShaneRetiMP) January 21, 2022

The volcanic eruption took place at the weekend about 40 miles north of the Tongan capital of Nuku’alofa, with the effects of the powerful blast causing a number of deaths and injuries from floods and ash. It also severed the only undersea cable that connects the nation to the internet.

The cable, which runs 500 miles across the Pacific to Fiji, brought high-speed connectivity to Tonga when it started operating in 2013.

A ship with repair equipment is preparing to set sail from Papua New Guinea, but it’s not expected to reach Tonga until early February, according to the New York Times.

The repair will likely take several weeks to complete as it involves locating the damaged section of cable, hauling it from the bottom of the ocean onto the ship, and building in a replacement section, work the Times describes as “intricate.” And any hint of another eruption and the repair team will have to down tools and seek refuge.

According to the Times’ report, the damage to the internet cable occurred about 23 miles from the Tongan capital, with the cause thought to be land slippage or a sudden shift in the seafloor.

For the first few days following Saturday’s eruption, all communication lines were down, making it almost impossible for international aid agencies to assess the damage, though in recent days some phone services have become operational again.

SpaceX’s Starlink service has already been used in an emergency situation, providing internet access during and after devastating wildfires in Washington in September 2020. Infrastructure providing connectivity in the area was destroyed in the fires, prompting SpaceX to deploy Starlink terminals in the area so responders and residents could get online.

SpaceX is gradually expanding the broadband service to customers in more countries, suggesting Tonga’s population of just over 100,000 people may be in a position to receive some degree of assistance. However, a tight supply of Starlink satellite dishes may prove problematic.

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Trevor Mogg
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