By Alan Burkitt-Gray
A US$5.7m dispute between the government of Tonga and satellite company Kacific is delaying moves to provide internet and phone services until the islands’ subsea cables are restored.
The government has still not paid Kacific for a 15-year deal, signed three years ago, to provide satellite back-up in just such an eventuality.
Now Kacific says it is “standing by” to connect the islands and its 105,000 people, who were cut off by the weekend’s volcano.
Kacific founder and CEO, Christian Patouraux, said: “Kacific is willing and able to restore connectivity since a valid and signed agreement exists to that effect between the government of Tonga and Kacific.”
The company said it can provide Ka-band coverage to the islands using beams from its Kacific1 satellite positioned over the equator at 150° E longitude (see map, with Tonga highlighted), and said “it is prepared to provide a full suite of satellite broadband services” under a framework services agreement that was negotiated and signed by Tongan authorities in April 2019.
However, company noted that “the previous government was unwilling to perform the contract, and it is currently subject to arbitration in Singapore”.
Patouraux said: “All we need is to activate that service and perform that contract. We are now awaiting instructions. We have one simple message for the government of Tonga. We can help. Please get in touch.”
Getting in touch might be a problem, as both the 827km Tonga Cable from Fiji is cut about 37km from the cable landing station, and so is the 410km Tonga Domestic Cable Extension, which connects the main island with two outlying islands to the north.
Subcom’s cable repair ship, Reliance, has been assigned to fix the two breaks, but at 11:00 UK time on Tuesday it was still at anchor 4,000km away off Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea.
Once the cable ship Reliance is on the way from Port Moresby is it expected to have to call for supplies at the depot in Apia, the capital of Samoa, owned by the South Pacific Marine Maintenance Agreement (SPMMA), a cooperative of subsea cable companies.
One of the challenges when Reliance does finally approach Tonga is that there are fears the volcano, Hunga Tonga, 65km north of the main island, might erupt again.
Meanwhile, Kacific’s dispute with the Tongan government reached the courts in mid-2021, after the government tried to remove its wholly owned Tonga Satellite company from the register of companies.
The Tongan government had signed an agreement in April 2019 for long-term back-up services over the following 15 years, at a cost of US$5.76 million, a sum due in June 2019.
But this agreement was thrown into doubt when Tonga tried to close down Tonga Satellite. The attempt to de-register the satellite company was seen as an attempt to avoid payment and cancel the contract.
The Tonga Supreme Court decided in June 2021 that the Tongan government’s attempt was invalid.
The Lord Chief Justice of Tonga, Michael Whitten QC, said in his judgement: “It is regrettable, in my view, that government adopted the course of removing TSL [Tonga Satellite] and in opposing this application on the forlorn grounds that it did. Doing so has likely done little to enhance, and may even have damaged, the government’s reputation for being a responsible and reliable international trading partner.”
Kacific commented at the time: “This milestone means that Kacific can now continue its arbitration against TSL and the government of Tonga.”
However, Capacity understands that Tonga still owes US$5.76 million for its 15 years of satellite back-up services – services it now desperately needs.
Kacific1 is a geostationary high-throughput satellite, orbiting at 35,786km above the equator, and providing services across a wide footprint from Nepal and northern India in the west to New Zealand in the south-east, and including many of the islands of the western Pacific. The satellite has a beam aimed directly at Tonga.
Capacity has asked Luxembourg-based SES whether it was in touch with Tonga over whether its O3b satellites could offer a service. SES has declined to comment.