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Reboot: Tonga hopes to restore internet access by weekend

WELLINGTON, New Zealand >> Authorities in Tonga said Thursday they’re hoping people will be able to visit Facebook and YouTube again by the weekend as experts repair the vital undersea cable that connects the Pacific nation to the rest of the world.

Tonga was plunged into virtual darkness 11 days ago when the fiber-optic cable was severed. Initially, people lost access to the internet almost entirely and couldn’t even make international phone calls.

Limited access was restored via satellite, but authorities blocked most people from using social media like Facebook to preserve precious bandwidth.

Residents and businesspeople said they’ve had difficulty doing anything from reading emails to processing credit card payments.

Piveni Piukala, a director of Tonga Cable Ltd. which operates the cable, told The Associated Press that it believes a large ship cut the cable in several places by dragging an anchor along the seabed. He said a domestic cable that connects the main island with some of Tonga’s outer islands was cut at the same time.

He said experts on a specialized ship are splicing the cable back together and hope to be finished by Friday afternoon, at which point they can run tests and, barring complications, fully restore the internet over the weekend.

Piukala said it had identified an oil tanker that was in the area when the cable was cut and would work with port authorities and police to determine whether there had been an act of negligence.

He said the repairs are estimated to cost over $1 million, money the company, which has the government as its major shareholder, can ill afford.

Piukala said he hopes Tonga and other island nations might get together to share the costs of a joint backup plan in the future.

“We don’t need a rocket scientist to tell us we need a better plan,” he said. “It’s a question of funding. The cost of a backup is huge, and for a country like Tonga, we don’t have the luxury of money to put aside for a disaster like this. Other priorities are more urgent.”

Tonga is home to just over 100,000 people. It exports some agricultural goods but also relies on external aid and remittances from abroad.

Piukala said its first priority had been to restore internet access to critical government agencies and industries like airlines and banks. He said social media was a lower priority.

“We understand people need Facebook, but we cannot talk about luxury things when we are stranded on an island without any food,” he said.

Katie Silcock, the general manager of Scenic Hotel Tonga, said it was not able to process credit card payments for several days last week and had some guests cancel, but by Monday, as a priority customer, had its internet fully restored. She said many smaller operators were still without internet access and their businesses were suffering as a result.

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