International satellite service provider Intelsat, in cooperation with Australian operator Telstra and New Zealand operator Spark, has deployed emergency communications services to support humanitarian aid to Tonga and support for local operators Digicel Tonga and Tonga Communications.
The undersea volcano Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha’apai erupted on 15 January, 40 miles north of Tonga’s capital, Nuku’alofa. The volcanic explosion and subsequent tsunami knocked out the undersea internet cables that connect Tonga to the rest of the world, disconnecting the region’s residents.
Intelsat says it is providing space-based broadband connectivity on Horizons 3e and Intelsat 18, while Telstra and Spark are providing the ground infrastructure, including VSAT hubs at their teleports, uplink, internet access and remote kits. The services provided are now fully provisioned and are expanding broadband and voice services in Tonga.
In addition, Intelsat is providing services in conjunction with Australian operator Optus to the New Zealand Defence Force, who will provide humanitarian support in Tonga.
In an ever-more-connected telecom world, it is easy to forget that for certain countries, voice and data connectivity depend entirely on one cable linkage. If that is cut, total isolation will be the result. That is exactly what happened to Tonga. Around one hour after the volcano erupted, the undersea cable was severed and the archipelago nation lost contact. As Tongans struggled with the damage caused by the eruption and the ensuing tsunami, they were unable to provide specific information to neighboring countries or to coordinate rescue efforts with them.
The eruption was a reminder of the precariousness of mobile networks in the face of natural disasters, but it was also the occasion for a reminder about the power of volunteerism and of collaboration among different kinds of mobile service providers. As in other instances involving remote areas, satellite signals stepped in to provide what cellular signals could not under the circumstances. And cellular operators, partnering on the ground, set up local networks to spread the connectivity provided by the satellite service. A humanitarian and technological cooperation made it possible for communication to be restored and recovery to begin—a truly inspiring mobile-telecom story.