SpaceX’s Starlink is providing emergency Internet access for the island of Tonga after the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano erupted. The eruption killed three people, blanketed as many as 170 islands with up to 1.2 inches of volcanic ash and debris, and severed the cables that delivered Internet access to the small island country via Fiji.
According to NASA, the eruption was powerful enough to generate shockwaves that reached the ionosphere.
Attorney general and communication minister Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum has been working with a team from SpaceX to set up an interlink with Starlink satellites. The interlink will provide temporary connectivity until the Internet cables can be restored.
Some government buildings and the Tongan monarchy’s palace still have some limited connectivity. However, that coverage can’t serve the entire country.
A previous break in an Internet cable serving Tonga took two weeks to repair. This time, it might take longer, considering that the country also has to clean up debris and damage caused by the eruption. Many businesses and public services such as banks, stores, and schools are closed in the wake of the emergency.
Starlink’s experience with helping government agencies deal with a crisis includes providing communications for Washington State firefighters as they combatted severe wildfires in 2020. It also sent Starlink terminals to Kentucky to assist with tornado response efforts in December 2021.
SpaceX has been working with governments worldwide to provide Internet access to remote or low-income communities that could be hit the hardest by disasters. This includes communities in Brazil and Chile, the Cherokee Nation and Hoh Tribe, and sparsely populated areas in the United States and United Kingdom that haven’t had the same level of access as more populous areas.
It is working on a terminal that could be mounted to large vehicles like buses and RVs. This will likely be useful for emergency response efforts that will require both mobility and reliable communications. It is inadvisable to mount it on the hood of your car yet, though.
Starlink recently lost forty newly launched satellites due to solar activity. However, this is unlikely to impact its ability to deliver Internet access to Tonga and other remote areas that could easily lose Internet access due to a disaster that severs other communications outlets. It is already reaching performance levels that are close to traditional broadband.
SpaceX’s Starlink didn’t have a presence on Tonga before offering to provide temporary Internet service in the wake of the volcanic eruption. However, a demonstrated ability to help in a disaster might help open the door to a more permanent presence on the island.