Underwater internet cable torn apart by volcano in Tonga to be repaired; learn how

As reported by Olhar Digital, the eruption of the underwater volcano Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai, which took place on the 15th, left the Tonga archipelago almost completely incommunicado with the rest of the world, given that the natural disaster broke the cape fiber optic submarine that allows internet connection on nearby islands.

An underwater volcano eruption in the Tonga region has damaged undersea internet connection cables. Image: NICT via AP

According to the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs, it could take more than a month for the 49,889 km of cable in the South Pacific to be fully repaired. The cable, operated by Tonga Cable, is believed to have been damaged about 37 km offshore.

For now, only a 2G wireless connection has been established on the main island, using a satellite dish from the University of the South Pacific. This was done on a temporary basis, as the service is spotty and the internet is slow.

Repair process is simple

According to Virgin Media Chief Engineer Peter Jamieson, who is also vice chairman of the European Underwater Cable Association, the process for “patching” the cable is quite simple. “They will send a pulse of light from the island, and a machine will measure how long it takes to travel — that will establish where the rupture is,” explains Jamieson.

According to him, in the sequence, a vessel specialized in cable repair will be sent to the site of the first rupture. Using an ROV (remotely operated underwater vehicle) or a tool known as a grappling hook – which is basically a hook on a chain – they will work on repairing the broken point.

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When this end is reconnected to the new cable on board the vessel, the same process will be carried out at the other end of the break. According to the Reuters news agency, if everything goes according to plan, the entire process will take between five and seven days to complete.

However, it will take some time for a cable repair vessel to reach the archipelago. The closest is currently parked in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, about 4,700 km away.

Specialists will still need to verify that the area is safe for the vessel and crew, and that there is no further risk of volcanoes erupting.

Undersea cables are hardly hit by volcanic eruptions like the one in Tonga

It is estimated that up to 200 repairs are carried out a year in the world, but it is rare that the damage is caused by natural disasters – 90% of the ruptures are caused by nets or fishing boat anchors.

According to the CNN report, increasingly, the tracking technology is being used to inform operators about the presence of boats in areas that may pose a risk to the cables so that they are able to trigger them directly to alertá- them.

Made of fiber optic glass, data transmission cables have a large part of their thickness formed only by a protective coating for the glass fibers. Cables that run through a continental shelf must be buried between one and two meters deep.

Worldwide, it is estimated that there are more than 430 cables, which run 1.3 million km around the planet.

After a cable snapped in 2019 — because of a ship's anchor — Tonga signed a 15-year contract to get satellite connection. However, the use of satellite phones has been affected by the volcanic ash covering the country. Also, because of the cost, satellite phones are restricted to government officials and some companies.

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