What the Tonga disaster tells us about the South Pacific’s cyber resilience
16 Feb 2022|

It’s been a month since the Hunga Tonga–Hunga Ha’apai volcano erupted and cut off Tonga’s domestic and international communications. While satellite providers rushed to assist with restoring a basic connection, local media report that current services meet only 12.5% of national demand.

It’s the second time in three years that Tongans have faced a communications blackout. The story of Tonga’s submarine cable connection and the digital infrastructure and services that were built holds valuable lessons on how to approach digital issues in the Pacific. Besides vulnerabilities of infrastructure, there are resilient communities and practices that should inform Australia’s and others’ approaches to digital and cyber capacity-building.

In 2019, it took a repair crew stationed in Samoa two days to arrive at the scene and another full week to make the necessary repairs. This time, Tonga’s cable company estimated it might take up to a month before the cable comes back online. The nearest maintenance crew was in Papua New Guinea and it took them 10 days to get to Tonga.

Tonga’s connection to the world is a 827-kilometre-long fibre-optic submarine cable that connects to Fiji. From there it links with the Southern Cross cable that runs between Sydney, Hawaii and California. Reports suggest the international cable is broken at a point 37 kilometres from the coast of Tonga’s main island. The domestic cable, which branches off in Nuku’alofa and connects with the outer islands of Ha’apai and Vava’u, is thought to be damaged at a point near the volcano.

Tonga’s digital infrastructure wasn’t unprepared for natural disasters. The national data centre, for instance, was already housed in a sea container that could be moved to a secure location in an emergency.

For most South Pacific islands, fibre connections are a relatively recent piece of infrastructure. Tonga’s international cable was commissioned in 2013 and the domestic one followed in 2018. Fibre-optic cables rapidly became critical lifelines for Pacific economies. The halt to international travel that followed the Covid-19 outbreak only exacerbated that dependency.

According to the Asian Development Bank, which co-funded the cable system, the installation of the cable resulted in a surge in internet use. In 2019, 50% of Tonga’s 110,000 inhabitants held an individual subscription, mainly by mobile phone. Given the communal, shared nature of internet access, particularly in remote areas, actual use is even higher.

The ADB further assessed that the availability of reliable and adequately fast internet led to widespread use of social media, including as a platform to sell goods and services. It made transfers of remittances easier; four out of five Tongan households receive stipends from workers overseas. Internet connectivity also allows civil society and community networks to organise more effectively and let their democratic voices be heard.

Most Pacific nations have been able to set up broadband networks that connect essential public services such as schools, hospitals and ministries; national data centres; and a growing suite of government websites and online civil registry services.

During the pandemic, online platforms were a key tool for Pacific governments to push out public health messages.

Submarine cables get damaged regularly (about twice a week globally), causing disruptions. However, most nations don’t rely on a single line. That’s different in the Pacific. With just a handful of trans-ocean cables there’s limited scope to branch off multiple lines. It’s also an expensive operation. The Tonga cable, a relatively short one, cost US$28.6 million to lay and, given the small consumer markets in the Pacific islands, it’s hard to commercially recover costs.

Some Pacific island states are still trying to secure their first landing points. Tuvalu, for example, missed out when a proposed cable was rerouted. As a result, the country remains reliant on satellite connectivity, which is expensive and vulnerable to weather-related disruptions.

Basic levels of connectivity with Tonga were restored on 21 January, only five days after the eruption. Digicel managed to activate a satellite link with help from fellow telecommunications operators Telstra and Spark and satellite operators SES and NovelSat. A similar collective effort emerged in 2019, when regional operators stepped forward and provided interim connectivity to Tonga. Last week, SpaceX announced it was setting up a ground station in Fiji for its Starlink low-orbit satellite network.

It’s a demonstration of the Pacific’s resilience and the preparedness of public and private actors to step up and provide internet services in challenging circumstances.

In fact, Tonga is one of the more advanced digital countries in the South Pacific. After the blackout in 2019, the government signed a 15-year contract with Kacific, a satellite operator with strong coverage over the Pacific. Besides serving as a back-up, this link would provide satellite broadband connectivity to hospitals, schools, police stations, post offices, and health clinics and dispensaries on some 80+ remote outer islands. However, the agreement was never activated because of a dispute pending before a court of arbitration over an outstanding payment of US$5.8 million.

The same year, Tonga also entered into a US$4.65 million partnership with the World Bank to start an ambitious program further building their digital government capabilities. This includes plans for a national (digital) ID, update to civil registration system, cybersecurity program, secure network and data centre and additional e-government services.

What does this mean for Australia and its development partners?

Australia has become a major investor in Pacific submarine cables. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade invested $200 million in the Coral Sea cable system connecting Sydney with Solomon Islands and PNG. Through the Australian Infrastructure Financing Facility for the Pacific, Australia announced additional co-funding for a cable connecting the Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati and Nauru and for a second redundancy cable to be laid to Palau (total of US$30 million).

While these investment decisions were driven by geoeconomic interests, future funding that addresses vulnerabilities in the existing Pacific cable network should not be dismissed. As the network of cables grows, regional capabilities to maintain, repair and restore connections should also be looked at more closely. Of the 50 or 60 cable-laying ships worldwide, only one is operating in the relative vicinity of the South Pacific.

Onshore, Australia, New Zealand, the US and others have been supporting the digital development of Pacific economies. The Tonga story shows that these efforts need to account for resiliency, including coping mechanisms for shorter or longer periods of disruptions in connectivity.

The absence of international technical assistance on the ground during this pandemic further suggests that donors should pay greater attention to digital and technology solutions that can be managed, resourced and deployed locally. Pacific development initiatives are still lagging in the uptake of digital public goods, for example.

When considering digital and tech issues, most political attention seems to be drawn to security aspects. The 2018 Boe Declaration provides a capstone for cyber capacity-building programs that prioritise the ability to handle cybersecurity incidents, combat cybercrime and enhance communities’ online safety awareness. While those are important, other issues such as rural access, quality coverage and locally relevant online services may be more instrumental in achieving sustainable development goals—a priority in the Pacific context.

Now that Telstra, with support from the Australian government, is set to acquire Digicel’s Pacific operations, its role in the Pacific digital landscape will be even bigger. As Tonga’s cable experience illustrates, this role comes with a responsibility that extends beyond business continuity and involves personal commitment to its Pacific customers that are part of broader Australia–Pacific relations.