Partial Phone Service Restored, Other CNMI Telecom Still Out

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Fiber-optic cable breakage cripples communication

By Gaynor Dumat-ol Daleno

HAGÅTÑA, Guam (Pacific Daily News, July 9, 2015) – The telecommunications outage in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands has eased slightly, with the partial restoration of phone connection Thursday, but Internet service hasn’t been restored on Saipan.

The CNMI was cut off from phone and Internet connection with Guam and the rest of the world shortly after midnight Wednesday when the lone undersea fiber-optic cable connection to the CNMI broke. The breakage resulted in a breakdown in communications links to the CNMI, crippling the ability of people and businesses to surf the web, make off-island calls, use credit cards or ATMs, consult with off-island health professionals and book flights, among other functions.

Cape Air canceled CNMI-Guam flights between Wednesday and Friday because of the communications breakdown.

The lone undersea cable connection to the CNMI is operated by IT&E.

IT&E announced Thursday morning that a backup microwave communications link, connecting Guam, Rota, Tinian and Saipan, was partially restored, allowing for a limited phone connection.

"Limited voice connections have been established between Guam and Saipan, and we are working to restore more lines," said Pacific Telecommunications Inc. Chief Executive Officer Jim Oehlerking. The company is the parent of IT&E.

IT&E’s Guam customers who have second-generation or certain third-generation data phones also couldn’t use text messaging, calling or Internet features on their phones, the company has acknowledged.

Typhoon Nangka

As an example of how voice phone connection remained limited, government offices in Saipan, including the Emergency Management Office, which coordinates storm response, couldn’t be reached by phone from Guam Thursday. Typhoon Nangka made its closest approach to Saipan Thursday morning, but information on damage to the island wasn’t available because of the communications outage.

The National Weather Service on Guam, which gives weather updates, couldn’t make a call to the Saipan Emergency Management Office Thursday morning so communication was initially through radio.

Patrick Chan, a Weather Service meteorologist, said around 11 a.m. Thursday that the Saipan Emergency Management Office was able to start making hourly phone calls to the Weather Service on Guam. The Guam office couldn’t make a call into Saipan.

In Saipan, local and long distance calls are working, but at a limited capacity, according to IT&E. Internet service to Tinian and Rota has been restored and some phone service features have been restored, according to IT&E.

IT&E stated the cause of the undersea cable break remains under investigation. The company stated Wednesday the break was a result of complications from recent storms.

It may take days to determine the extent of the damage to the cable on the seabed between Saipan and Tinian, and how long it will take to repair it, according to IT&E.

IT&E’s microwave communications link, which is a backup to the undersea cable, was damaged during Typhoon Dolphin, IT&E stated Wednesday.

When the undersea cable snapped, not a single phone call could be made into the CNMI on Wednesday, unless people had access to one of the few satellite phones on the main island of Saipan.

Voice and SMS services have been restored for DOCOMO PACIFIC customers on Saipan. Still unavailable on Thursday were mobile data and home Internet.

Is Guam vulnerable?

Unlike the CNMI’s single undersea cable connection, Guam has several undersea cable systems, two island experts said.

"All undersea cables are subject to damage. However, Guam has multiple cables coming into the island as well as multiple landing points and multiple landing stations," said Andrew Gayle, chief operating officer of GTA.

GTA has partnered with international companies for a fourth undersea cable network, called SEA-U.S. cable, which links South-East Asia and the U.S. mainland via Guam and Hawaii.

"These additional cables allow for a much higher level of fault tolerance for Guam’s communications infrastructure: a cable cut on one of the cables will not cut off Guam as traffic can still pass over the other cables," Gayle said.

Bob Kelly, a longtime government and private consultant on telecom on Guam, also said it’s unlikely that Guam will experience a problem as widespread as the CNMI’s if one undersea cable breaks. Guam has redundancies and competition among various telecommunications companies, he said.

In the CNMI, no competition in the undersea cable line business, Kelly said, "means any time there is a single point of failure, it can take an entire economy down."

Kelly said, about two years ago, he suggested that the CNMI use federal economic stimulus funds to jump-start a second undersea cable to be cost-shared by telecommunications companies to promote competition and avert a complete shutdown. The CNMI government shut down the idea, Kelly said.

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