SYDNEY (Reuters) - The undersea telecommunications cable connecting Tonga to the rest of the world that was damaged by a volcano eruption will take at least a month to fix, its owner said on Wednesday, with the delay likely hampering disaster recovery efforts.
The explosion of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai volcano, which has killed at least three people and sent tsunami waves across the Pacific, knocked out connectivity to the archipelago on Saturday.
A specialist ship is aiming to embark from Port Moresby on a repair voyage over the weekend, said Samiuela Fonua, chairman of cable owner Tonga Cable Ltd.
But with eight or nine days sailing to collect equipment in Samoa and then an uncertain journey toward the fault in the eruption area he said it will be "lucky" if the job is done within a month.
"It could be longer than that," he added on the telephone from Auckland where he has been co-ordinating the repair.
"The cables are actually around the volcanic zone. We don't know ... whether they are intact or blown away or stuck somewhere underwater. We don't know if it's buried even deeper."
In the meantime, Tongans abroad are praying as they wait for news of their friends and relatives.
Telecom operator Digicel said its domestic network was active on Tonga's most populous island and it was now focused on restoring international connections. Tonga's government and state-owned Tonga Communications Corp. could not be contacted.
The virtual communications blackout has made relief efforts, already challenged by the COVID-19 pandemic, even more difficult. It also underscores the vulnerability of the subsea fibre-optic cables that have become the backbone of global telecoms.
The $34 million Asian Development Bank and World Bank-funded cable was finished in 2018 and boosted Tonga's net speeds more than 30-fold, but is almost its sole link to the wider world.
Attempts to replicate an emergency satellite connection that was set up when the same cable was severed three years ago had stalled amidst a contract dispute between the government and Singapore-based satellite operator Kacific.
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said on Tuesday that Tonga is negotiating with Kacific, which has a satellite above the archipelago, to access a satellite internet connection.
Tonga Cable will be expected to pay U.S. maintenance company SubCom for the repairs. Chairman Fonua declined to provide an estimate but said the bill would probably come in below $1 million. "We will settle the cost later," he said.
"There are some other cable companies as well that are willing to provide spare cables," he added, without elaborating.
Tonga will be able to access a $10 million Asian Development Bank relief facility upon request, the director general of the ADB's Pacific department, Emma Veve, told Reuters on Wednesday.
(Reporting by Tom Westbrook in Sydney. Additional reporting by Karen Lema in Manila.)