“There’s a priority on whose cable gets fixed first,” says Madory. “Countries pay a small premium to be repaired first.” Once one of these vessels arrives on site, which can take days, it drops a hook to snag on the cable that runs along the sea floor. The hooked cable, which can be as thin as a common garden hose in the deep sea, is then pulled onto the ship’s deck, where technicians work to repair the break. “The cabling itself is not the most stable,” says Kaufmann. It is then gently lowered back into the water. “This process hasn’t changed much in the roughly 150 years that we’ve had submarine cables,” says Madory.
Of course, there are factors that can complicate the process. Tonga is likely to be besieged by ships hoping to deliver aid to the country, which may mean internet wiring takes a backseat to saving lives, restoring power and delivering essential food and water supplies. The exact location of the break can also complicate things: the farther from shore the break is, the deeper the cable – and the harder it is to reach and pull up from the ground. That’s before considering that the onshore power lines that help keep the connection alive may be damaged beyond repair. “Tonga is at one end of the internet,” says Madory. “Once you leave the core of the internet, you have fewer options.”
The internet failure shows how dependent the global internet connection can be on single points of failure. “It’s one of those stories that belies the idea that the internet is designed to withstand nuclear war,” says Alan Woodward, professor of cybersecurity at the University of Surrey in the UK. “Gum holds most things together.” Woodward suggests that rare physical events like volcanic explosions are difficult to plan for, but countries should try to maintain redundancy through multiple undersea links, and ideally ones that follow different routes so a localized incident doesn’t affects several lines.
But layoffs don’t come cheap — especially for a small nation of just over 100,000 people like Tonga. It’s also likely that in a massive eruption like this, seafloor movement would have caused a rupture in any secondary cable, even if it had been laid across Tonga.
“There’s a broader message about infrastructure resilience,” says Andrew Bennett, an internet policy analyst at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change. “While the UK or US will not be like Tonga, there is increasing geopolitical tension and debate[around] Discussions about things like undersea cables that take us to a more unsettled place. You don’t want to end up in a place where you have sovereign cables for the allies and different cables for everyone else.”
Bennett suggests two options to bridge the connectivity gap. One is the rapid adoption of satellite internet – and the satellite constellations are being launched into space. The other is to devote more money to the problem. “If you view resilient internet infrastructure as a public good, countries that can afford it should pay for it and make it available to others,” he says. Closing the global digital divide by 2030 would cost just 0.2% of gross national income in OECD countries per year, according to the institute.
With the internet increasingly seen as the fourth essential service alongside heat, power and water, such a long outage for 100,000 people is a major disaster – compounding the immediate physical impact of the outbreak. And it underscores the fragility of certain parts of the internet, especially outside of the wealthy western world. “The Internet isn’t necessarily crumbling at its core,” says Woodward. “But it will always be a bit frayed around the edges.”