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Tonga volcanic eruption: National MP Shane Reti appeals to SpaceX CEO Elon Musk to help with telecommunications

SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk has responded to a NZ appeal to urgently help Tonga restore its internet connection after the volcanic eruption severed communications.

National MP Dr Shane Reti yesterday published a letter he had sent to Musk, asking for help to provide his Starlink satellite technology to the Pacific country.

The devastating eruption last Saturday damaged an underground telecommunications cable, which could take a month to repair.

Reti, the National Party’s health spokesman, said that he wrote to Musk on Monday asking if he would contribute Starlink to the emergency. The technology uses satellites to deliver internet access to remote locations around the world.

“I am respectfully asking if you could see your way please to providing urgent Starlink internet communications to public officials and the good people of Tonga in this moment of need.”

Reti posted the letter on Twitter, saying Musk “can only say no” and “if you don’t ask you don’t know”.

Musk offered to assist Tonga last night, asking on Twitter whether Tonga authorities could inform him whether Starlink terminals were needed.

When alerted to Reti’s plea, Musk said it would be a difficult task.

“This is a hard thing for us to do right now, as we don’t have enough satellites with laser links and there are already geo [satellites] that serve the Tonga region,” he wrote on Twitter.

“That is why I’m asking for clear confirmation.’

In response, Reti urged Tongan officials to get in touch with Musk.

Tonga has only just begun to re-establish global contact after being completely cut off from the rest of the world following the eruption at the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano, 65km north of the capital Nuku’alofa.

Mobile phone company Digicel has re-establishing communications in the country, but lines have been clogged with heavy traffic, leaving many still unable to get through to loved ones.

Three deaths have been confirmed following the eruption, which also caused a tsunami. There are also reports of injuries but confirmation remains difficult because of strained communications links.

UN officials said 84,000 people – more than 80 per cent of Tonga’s population – had been impacted by tsunami and the ashfall.

New Zealand Defence Force Commander of Joint Forces Rear Admiral Jim Gilmour said yesterday there were fears for food security, with reports ash was killing crops.

Ash and seawater have also contaminated water supplies.

Offshore patrol vessel HMNZS Wellington, which is carrying a helicopter, technical gear, and teams, has arrived in Tongan waters.

It will scope the shipping channels and wharves at the main port to see if they are safe enough to use to drop off supplies, in time for HMNZS Aotearoa, which is carrying bulk water supplies, and is due today.

“Water is among the highest priorities for Tonga, and the Aotearoa can carry 250,000 litres, and produce 70,000 litres per day through a desalination plant.”

Gilmour said staff did not need to set foot on Tonga at all, in an effort to avoid spreading Covid-19 to the currently coronavirus-free country.

Additional reporting RNZ

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