On January 15, the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai volcano erupted. The blast and subsequent fallout resulted in three deaths and the island nation of Tonga being blanketed with debris and ash that will likely take months to clean up. It also severed the undersea cable that nearly the entire country relied on for internet connectivity.
Now, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, Fiji's attorney-general and communication minister, has told The Wall Street Journal that a team from Elon Musk's SpaceX is on the island attempting to set up a satellite interlink with its Starlink network. The goal is apparently to bring Tonga back online while repairs to the undersea cable are being completed.
As the WSJ noted, a previous break in the cable caused by a ship's anchor took two weeks to repair, even without a volcanic eruption's devastation hindering efforts.
Such an extended outage comes at a bad time for the nation, which is also dealing with a spike in COVID-19 cases that prompted a lockdown. Schools, banks, and stores are closed as cleanup continues.
It remains unclear what type of connectivity SpaceX's Starlink might be able to provide to the Pacific islands. The company didn't have a presence anywhere in the island chain before this attempt.
The bid to help Tonga recover from a natural disaster comes at an ironic time for SpaceX. The company is itself dealing with an equally natural disaster of a very different kind. A geomagnetic storm just destroyed or severely disabled 40 out of a recently-launched fleet of 49 Starlink satellites, showing even space-based broadband is not immune to the vagaries of Mother Nature.
It also follows the recent launch of Starlink Premium, a new service tier that promises to offer subscribers some of the fastest satellite Internet speeds seen yet, but at a cost of $500 per month.
As things stand, the only active Internet connection in Tonga is the one used by the Tongan monarchy's waterfront palace and adjacent government buildings and resorts, the WSJ noted. However, the limited connectivity, which is provided by Digicel Group, cannot hold up to the demand of the entire country.
If SpaceX is successful in rapidly setting up a short-term station to bring more of the island chain's citizens back online, it could provide proof that Starlink's growing satellite network is viable not just as part of long-term installations, but also as an option during disaster recovery efforts.