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SpaceX steps into Tonga Internet breach

Starlink, an ambitious low-earth orbit satellite broadband provider owned by Elon Musk's SpaceX, is apparently helping Tonga restore Internet connectivity after the eruption of an undersea volcano broke its only international fiber-optic link on January 15.

Tonga Geological Services staff monitor Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha'apai erupting three days before the eruption that triggered a tsunami. 

 (Source: ZUMA Press, Inc./Alamy Stock Photo)
Tonga Geological Services staff monitor Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha'apai erupting three days before the eruption that triggered a tsunami.
(Source: ZUMA Press, Inc./Alamy Stock Photo)

There has been some Twitter activity involving Elon Musk about the possibility of sending Starlink terminals to the beleaguered Pacific island nation, which seems to have started the ball rolling.

As reported by various news outlets, Fiji's Attorney-General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum flagged on Twitter today that "A SpaceX team is now in Fiji establishing a Starlink gateway station to reconnect Tonga to the world." He congratulated Musk on a "great initiative."

"[SpaceX] had applied for a temporary emergency telecommunications license on the 20th of January, the sole purpose of this license is to provide an internet gateway [for Tonga]," he told Fiji Broadcasting Corporation. "Space X and FINTEL [Fiji's international telecoms provider] are currently, however, in commercial negotiations to co-locate the earth station and connect to Fiji's internet gateway."

Could take some time

On January 17, Dr Shane Reti, a member of the National Party in New Zealand, sent a letter to Musk asking for help in restoring Internet connectivity with Starlink comms. He uploaded his letter on Twitter on January 21.

Musk had earlier asked on Twitter if Tonga wanted SpaceX to send Starlink terminals, but later indicated that getting Internet connectivity to the island quickly – as requested by Reti – would be difficult.

Starlink mission.
  (Source:  Official Space X Photos on Flickr CC2.0)
Starlink mission.
(Source: Official Space X Photos on Flickr CC2.0)

"This is a hard thing for us to do right now, as we don’t have enough satellites with laser links and there are already geo sats that serve the Tonga region," tweeted Musk.

Following the eruption of the Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha'apai undersea volcano, Tonga has been restricted to a patchy 2G connection using a satellite dish from the University of the South Pacific.

Refinitiv shipping data, as reported by Reuters, shows that cable repair ship Reliance has been off the coast of Tonga's main island for nearly a week trying to fix the damaged subsea cable.

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— Ken Wieland, contributing editor, special to Light Reading

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