The Tonga volcanic disaster shows we need to rethink telecom infrastructure


In the wake of a violent volcanic eruption in Tonga, much of the communication with residents on the islands remains at a standstill. In our modern, highly-connected world, more than 95% of global data transfer occurs along fibre-optic cables that criss-cross through the world’s oceans.

Breakage or interruption to this critical infrastructure can have catastrophic local, regional and even global consequences. This is exactly what has happened in Tonga following Saturday’s volcano-tsunami disaster. But this isn’t the first time a natural disaster has cut off critical submarine cables, and it won’t be the last.

The video below shows the incredible spread of submarine cables around the planet – with more than 885,000 kilometres of cable laid down since 1989. These cables cluster in narrow corridors and pass between so-called critical “choke points” which leave them vulnerable to a number of natural hazards including volcanic eruptions, underwater landslides, earthquakes and tsunamis.

Animation of spread of global submarine cable network between 1989 and 2023.

What exactly has happened in Tonga?

Tonga was only connected to the global submarine telecommunication network in the last decade. Its islands have been heavily reliant on this system as it is more stable than other technologies such as satellite and fixed infrastructure.

The situation in Tonga right now is still fluid, and certain details have yet to be confirmed – but it seems one or more volcanic processes (such as the tsunami, submarine landslide or other underwater currents) have snapped the 872km long fibre-optic cable connecting Tonga to the rest of the world. The cable system was not switched off or disconnected by the authorities.

This has had a massive impact. Tongans living in Australia and New Zealand can’t contact their loved ones to check on them. It has also made it difficult for Tongan government officials and emergency services to communicate with each other, and for local communities to determine aid and recovery needs.

Telecommunications are down, as are regular internet functions – and outages keep disrupting online services, making things worse. Tonga is particularly vulnerable to this type of disruption as there is only one cable connecting the capital Nuku’alofa to Fiji, which is more than 800km away. No inter-island cables exist.

Risks to submarine cables elsewhere

The events in Tonga once again highlight how fragile the global undersea cable network is and how quickly it can go offline. In 2009, I coauthored a study detailing the vulnerabilities of the submarine telecommunications network to a variety of natural hazard processes. And nothing has changed since then.

Cables are laid in the shortest (that means cheapest) distance between two points on the Earth’s surface. They also have to be laid along particular geographic locations that allow easy placement, which is why many cables are clustered in choke points.

Some good examples of choke points include the Hawaiian islands, the Suez Canal, Guam and the Sunda Strait in Indonesia. Inconveniently, these are also locations where major natural hazards tend to occur.

Once damaged it can takes days to weeks (or even longer) to repair broken cables, depending on the cable’s depth and how easily accessible it is. At times of crisis, such outages make it much harder for governments, emergency services and charities to engage in recovery efforts.

Many of these undersea cables pass close to or directly over active volcanoes, regions impacted by tropical cyclones and/or active earthquake zones.