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How one tweet got Tonga 50 satellite terminals

Friday 25 February 2022 | Written by RNZ | Published in Regional, Tonga

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How one tweet got Tonga 50 satellite terminals

When the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai underwater volcano erupted in Tonga on January 15, it caused a communications blackout that left the country without internet and no international phone service.

When the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai underwater volcano erupted in Tonga on January 15, it caused a communications blackout that left the country without internet and no international phone service.

A scientist from the Tonga Geological Services watches the eruption of the volcano from a boat. Photo: Facebook / Tonga Geological Services

"Within 12 hours of the eruption, I got a phone briefing from a colleague and was told that telecommunications to Tonga are going to be a major problem", said Doctor Shane Reti, a Member of New Zealand's Parliament and facilitator in New Zealand's relief mission to Tonga.

The powerful explosion had torn apart an underwater fibre cable that connected Tonga to the internet, as well as damaging domestic satellite terminals and covering them in volcanic ash.

"I got off that phone call and was remembering the newspapers in the previous few days where people were taking photographs of the linear array of Starlink satellites over New Zealand, and I thought to myself that if the subterranean cable was broken, the satellites would be a good way for communications to quickly get up in Tonga", said Dr Reti.

"Some said technically it couldn't be done. I told them this is a man who can get people up into space and who can get synchronous relaunching of boosters back on to earth, I'm sure he can get internet to Tonga."

Shane Reti
Shane Reti Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

Reti said he immediately sent a letter to Elon Musk requesting help and tweeted a copy of the letter three days later.

"It was explained to me that Elon responds mostly and quickly to tweets. What I asked him was really simply that because of the cataclysmic events around the Kingdom of Tonga, would he consider contributing Starlink satellites to help with communications."

"I sent that tweet out in the afternoon and I got a call in the early evening from my colleagues saying that Elon had replied."

Elon Musk responded on January 21 with two tweets. In his second tweet, he appealed to Tongans, asking if it was important for SpaceX to send over Starlink terminals.

"When I picked up that tweet, myself and others started communicating with Pacific peoples and leaders. We told them 'look Elon's got an offer on the table, all he wants to hear from you is that it will be useful'. They all reached out to Elon and said yes."

After weeks of speculation about negotiations between SpaceX and the Tongan Government, SpaceX engineers arrived in Tonga and installed 50 VSAT terminals. These terminals became operational on Wednesday 23 February.

In a media statement released the same day, Tonga's Prime Minister Hu'akavameiliku Siaso Sovaleni, thanked Elon Musk and Shane Reti for their efforts.

Hu'akavameiliku said "On behalf of His Majesty's Government, I thank all that have made today possible, to Dr Reti for bringing to the fore the dire needs of the Kingdom. And particularly Mr Elon Musk who probably didn't know much about Tonga till the 15th of January event, but gave generously anyway."

Elon Musk stands in the foundry of the Tesla Gigafactory during a press event in August, 2021.
Elon Musk stands in the foundry of the Tesla Gigafactory during a press event in August, 2021. Photo: Patrick Pleul / dpa Picture-Alliance via AFP

New Zealand's responsibility in the Pacific region

In the wake of the volcanic eruption shipments of foreign aid continue to arrive in Tonga from all over the world. The New Zealand Government has so far provided $3 million dollars in humanitarian funding to assist with relief efforts.

Dr Reti stressed the importance of New Zealand's partnership with Pacific Island countries.

"It's very important for New Zealand to look after our Pacific neighbours, friends and family. We have a history that goes back many decades that shows that we look after each other."

"We are geographically at this part of the world, so we are neighbours