23 Jan 2019

Outage forces Tongan govt to restrict internet

1:53 pm on 23 January 2019

When Tonga lost all cell phone and internet connection to the outside world on Sunday evening, Paula Piveni Piukala, the country's cable director happened to be attending a regional Telecommunications conference in Hawai'i.

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Photo: pexels

When he received news that something was wrong, he said he was lucky to be in the right place at the right time.

The Tonga Cable, a subsea cable providing the kingdom's broadband connection, broke down on Sunday evening resulting in an outage that took out all the kingdom's domestic and international cell phone and internet coverage.

Mr Piukala received news of the outage on Monday morning.

"I was lucky that I was here at the Pacific Telecommunications Council meeting in Hawai'i and this is where all the satellite providers and the cable and submarine cable providers were at," he said.

"And I happened to walk straight in and I saw these 'Kacific' guys and I explained the issue to them."

Kacific Broadband Satellites is a satellite operator with a special focus on the Pacific and Mr Piukala said they had just recently acquired a new client in Tonga, Ezinet, which had access to one of their satellites.

So with the help of Kacific, engineers began working to reconnect Tonga with the rest of the world through the smaller local service provider, Ezinet.

The government-owned internet service provider, Tonga Communications Corporation, will tap into Ezinet's satellite access while officials work to fix the main cable.

"They are the saving grace for these issues," said Mr Piukala of Ezinet.

"We owe them. Their existence with a satellite communication really saved and cut the losses and made us able to put up connectivity in a much shorter time."

Internet and mobile connections were expected to be restored by Tuesday evening but were delayed into Wednesday, with the company promising the satellite would be aligned "very soon".

At most, locals were travelling into town to use a phone connection through Ezinet to contact relatives overseas but Tongans overseas said the service had been busy and the connection slow at best.

Contact among locals remains difficult.

Mr Piukala said once Tonga's connections are fully restored, officials will look at blocking access to social media websites over the next few weeks while they work to resolve issues with the country's submarine cable.

"We are forced under the circumstances to prioritise traffic and put higher priority on things that matter," explained Mr Piukala.

"We have been informed that 80 percent of our international traffic is from social media so that gives us a little comfort. If they told us that 80 percent of our traffic were to do with government and business and all these other important functions then we would be very worried," he said.

"So what we are trying to do now is we may block Facebook, Youtube and social media, in the mean time, so that we can maximise the small bandwidth that we have from the satellite on what is important for the country."

Mr Piukala said any satellite connections that could be activated in Tonga were welcome as the current satellite connection isn't enough to provide the country's network redundancy requirement.

In the lead up to the outage Mr Piukala said engineers had been working on a network redundancy process to ensure network availability in the case of such an outage, but the services were not yet ready.

"This is a wake up call for small countries like us in the Pacific," he said, "We don't even know yet how much it will cost to fix this problem.

"But if it can happen to us, it can happen to anybody and other small countries in the region need to be more prepared."