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Elon Musk to Help Tonga Restore Internet via Starlink Satellites

tonga volcano  elon musk
The Tonga volcano as seen from a weather satellite in the South Pacific was stronger than 600 Hiroshima bombs. Credit: Facebook/Manny Conde Samaniego

Elon Musk, the brilliant engineer and entrepreneur, is ready to help Tonga restore internet service with his Starlink satellites after the volcano eruption and tsunami destroyed the only undersea cable that had given the Pacific island nation communications connections to the outside world.

The multibillionaire inventor of the Starlink telecommunications system stated on Twitter that he was interested in adding more satellites to help Tonga restore its communications with the rest of the world, as well as its citizens, who live on an archipelago of many islands.

Meanwhile, an outbreak of the coronavirus has started there after dockworkers unloading shipments from overseas reported two incidences of the virus after having contact with foreign crews delivering the aid. Now Tongan authorities have instituted a lockdown on the already heavily-stressed nation as it grapples with reconstruction after the devastation of the volcano and the resultant tsunami.

Elon Musk may ride to Tonga’s rescue via Starlink telecommunications system

The premier of Tonga took to radio to address his citizens regarding the new measures as repairs to the undersea cable are taking longer than had been previously estimated.

There is only one fiber-optic cable that provided the island nation with telecommunications services.

Several small settlements were completely wiped off the map and three people were killed as a result of the January 15 eruption of the enormous undersea volcano and the tsunami that followed.

A thick, abrasive layer of volcanic ash soon blanketed the main island, shutting off all photosynthesis in all the vegetation there — and ruining almost all of the drinking water supplies, since most Tongans had collected their water from cisterns that were open to the skies.

The Pacific nation had successfully protected its residents from the virus for two years because of its extremely isolated location, 1,481 miles away from New Zealand — which itself had some of the world’s most stringent lockdowns as a result of the pandemic.

Now there are displaced people across the islands who are stressing the troubled health care system, making this outbreak particularly worrisome, according to Katie Greenwood, the head of the International Red Cross in the Pacific.

“Resourcing community health and primary health facilities, especially in remote locations, is extremely challenging,” she told the Associated Press in an interview, adding “COVID most certainly presents a threat to these systems and to vulnerable people who may not access the level of care required.”

Hope of restoring communications may be on the horizon for Tonga

But hope, in the form of Elon Musk and his Starlink system of communications satellites, appears to be on the horizon, leading to the possible restoration of at least telemedicine and other communications that would ease the lockdown and many of its other associated issues.

Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, the Attorney General of Fiji, the neighboring island nation in the Pacific, said that a SpaceX team was already in his country, constructing a station that would help establish connections with Tonga once again through its satellite system.

SpaceX currently operates a network of almost 2,000 low-orbit Starlink satellites which — when they don’t collide in space storms and disintegrate, as they have recently — already provide internet service to many locations throughout the world.

The Fiji Attorney-General stated in a Tweet that the volcano’s shockwaves had “shattered Tonga’s internet connection, adding days of gut-wrenching uncertainty to disaster assessments.”

However, a spokeswoman for the Attorney General told the press on Wednesday that she was awaiting more information on the Starlink project before she could give any further details.

The Associated Press reports that SpaceX did not respond to their requests for comment on the issue.

New Zealand had earlier reached out to Musk in hopes that he could help reconnect Tonga to the world via the Starlink satellites. Politician Dr. Shane Reti wrote to the entrepreneur directly, asking him to help provide such a connection to the beleaguered island nation.

Reti later tweeted after he saw the Fiji Attorney General’s own tweet: “Very pleased. Elon Musk providing satellite to Tonga.”

The chairperson of Tonga Cable Ltd., the state-owned company that owns and operates the country’s undersea telecommunications cable, told the AP that the desperately-needed repairs might not get completed until the end of next week.

Samiuela Fonua said that one positive development occurred, however, when the repair crew aboard the ship CS Reliance had located both ends of the damaged cable. Unfortunately, however, the damage was very extensive and there wasn’t enough cable aboard the ship to replace a section of more than 80 kilometers (50 miles) that had been destroyed as a result of the volcanic blast and subsequent tsunami.

At present, Tonga Cable is attempting to ink agreements to use the extra cable aboard the ship that is owned by other companies.

For now, the UN has stepped in to help Tongans keep what connections they still have with the outside world, providing small satellites and other telecommunications help to aid in communications, according to spokesperson Stephane Dujarric, who added that more equipment was on the way to the distressed country.

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