Residents of the South Pacific nation of Tonga are experiencing a total Internet shutdown after an underwater cable which connects the island to the rest of the world was severed, possibly by the anchor of a large ship.
It doesn’t just mean that the isolated country can’t access Facebook and YouTube – it’s also affected email, airline bookings, university enrollment, money wires and prevented businesses from processing credit and debit cards – throwing the small country into chaos as they face up to weeks of Internet isolation.
A ship from nearby Samoa will be sent out to fix the severed cable within the next week, and in the meantime, a satellite dish has been set up in the country’s capital of Nuku’alofa. Hundreds of people reportedly gathered outside the government building housing the dish, where the signal is most reliable, to conduct necessary business or to simply touch base with relatives located away from the island.
“You just wait for your turn to have your 20 minutes to access… it’s currently hot here in Tonga at the moment but they’ve put up a tent outside, with chairs, so people can wait,” Tonga police spokeswoman Sia Adams said of the gathering outside the building, for which the hours have been extended to midnight.
“It’s like going back to the beginning of the Internet,” she continued.
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The severed cable connects Tonga to trans-Pacific Internet wires at Suva in Fiji, which is the sole source of connectivity for Tonga’s population of about 100,000. It was reportedly severed in two spots, about 6.2 miles off of Tonga’s coast, according to Paula Piveni Piukala, the director of the cable owner Tonga Cable Ltd.
Tonga is an archipelago comprised of 169 islands, many of which are uninhabited. As is the case for many Pacific islands, there isn’t enough population or funding for more than one cable to run from the main island, according to Christian Patouraux, chief executive of Singapore-based Internet company Kacific.
Because the only cable has been compromised – the country was left essentially with no backup, leading to the near-complete blackout.
“The country is functioning normally internally, but it’s still fairly cut off from the world,” Patouraux said. “It’s like the dark ages.”
Despite the confusion and inconvenience, locals are still said to be in good spirits. Katie Silcock, the general manager of Scenic Hotel Tonga, says that residents have an overall mindset of, “It will be fixed when it’s fixed.”