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Digicel reconnects Tongan users via satellite to rest of the world

Telco handing out free SIMs to let people reconnect.
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Written by Chris Duckett, APAC Editor on
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A post-tsunami view from a Royal New Zealand Air Force P-3K2 Orion reconnaissance flight.

Image: RNZAF

Digicel said on Wednesday night it successfully re-established international communication with its Tongan network thanks to a satellite link.

"We are extremely pleased to inform the people of the Kingdom of Tonga that Digicel international calls service is back up. We gave this work the highest priority and our technical team has had sleepless nights over the past few days in trying to restore vital communication with the world," said Digicel regional CEO Shally Jannif.

Jannif added the telco would be handing out free SIMs from Thursday to allow people to reconnect with overseas family and friends.

On Tuesday, Digicel said its network in Tongatapu was active, but its network would not be fully restored until the subsea cable linking Tonga to Fiji was restored. The repair ship CS Reliance has been tasked with the job and is en-route from Papua New Guinea.

"A preliminary technical fault investigation has established that there are two separate undersea cable breaks. The first between TCL cable landing station Sopu, Tongatapu, and FINTEL cable landing station in Suva, Fiji," Digicel said.

"The international cable break is approximately 37km offshore from Tonga. The second cable break is on the domestic cable which is near the area of the recent volcanic activity."

In 2019 after the Tonga cable suffered a pair of cuts and experienced a 12-day outage, the archipelago signed a 15-year deal with Kacific for satellite connectivity.

However, that contract has never been activated, and now sits in arbitration in Singapore, after Tonga deregistered the government company making the deal, Tonga Satellite Limited, and Kacific was not paid. A recent Tongan Supreme Court decision ordered the company to be relisted on the company register.

During the case, the Tongan government claimed the deal was unlawful because the company did not have a business licence, was not carrying out business activity, and therefore had no legal basis to operate. The judgment said any unlawful conduct was not on the part of Kacific, and did not make Kacific's claims in Singapore unenforceable.

"Kacific is willing and able to restore connectivity since a valid and signed agreement exists to that effect between the Government of Tonga and Kacific." Kacific CEO Christian Patouraux said in a statement issued on Monday.

"All we need is to activate that service and perform that contract. We are now awaiting instructions. We have one simple message for the Government of Tonga. We can help. Please get in touch."

Satellite capacity gets boost

Later on Thursday, Digicel said it would increase capacity over the satellite link.

"As soon as the link was opened up and international calls got restored last night, we saw an influx of callers as there were up to 200 simultaneous calls. We know that a lot of people tried to call their loved ones in Tonga but were having issues with connection," Jannif said.

"Today, our technical team did further upgrades on the link and we are pleased to announce that now 400 calls can be done at a time."

The company said it has more modems, antennas, and amplifiers arriving in Tonga as it tries to reconnect the Ha'apai and Vava'u Islands.

"We anticipate to put up all basic services in the next few days and then we hope to install more equipment to bring GPRS and 3G basic data services up so bank ATMs, EFTPOS and other services can be up in Tonga," Jannif added.

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Image: Digicel

Updated at 16:45pm AEDT, 20 January 2022: Additional information on satellite capacity.

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