The Tonga Internet Crisis: A Lesson in Risk Concentration - Envision Technology Advisors' blog

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The Tonga Internet Crisis: A Lesson in Risk Concentration

Tonga, a Polynesian Kingdom located southeast of Fiji, is made up of more than 170 islands – most of them uninhabited. While the country is typically celebrated for its lush green forests and sunny beaches, Tonga made national headlines in early 2019 for a much different reason – an internet blackout that impacted the entire nation.

A Blackout for the Books

Tonga’s internet connectivity is provided by a 514-mile (827 km) fiber optic cable system linking the small nation to Fiji via the Southern Cross Cable, which is the main trans-pacific link between Australia and the United States. This submarine cable system first began delivering broadband service to the citizens of Tonga in the latter half of 2013. While the project was initially revered as an affordable way for Tonga to access premier information and communication technology services, on the evening on Sunday, January 20, 2019, this nation of just over 100,000 people experienced a complete blackout of mobile and internet services because of damages to this cable.

The digital challenges of a small country like Tonga may seem incomparable to the data-driven society the United States is fortunate to possess, but there is a lesson in risk concentration that we can all learn from this story.

Considering Risk Concentration

There are several benefits to finding trusted partners for your business to work with, whether it is for IT solutions or other services that your company needs. Having a provider who understands your business and can deliver multiple complimentary services, all with the bigger picture in mind, is something Envision routinely recommends to our clients. It’s also something we strive for in how we architect our own offerings. However, for all the benefits that this kind of a bigger picture arrangement can bring, we also always talk with our clients about the idea of risk concentration, or the proverbial concept of having “all your eggs in one basket.”

If you work with a company that provides you with a large array of services, you are accepting the risk that if something happens to that partner, you will lose all those services in one fell swoop.  This is a critically important factor to consider whenever you look to consolidate services under one company, whether it be for synergy of service delivery, ease of billing, or for other reasons. If you are using a provider that you have worked with for years and possesses a long track record of business success, your appetite for risk may be greater than it would be with a brand-new provider that you have just started working with. Either way, this idea of risk concentration is something you should consider whenever you look at providers and the services they offer.

Establishing Backup Plans

Having a solid backup strategy goes hand in hand with considering risk concentration. You do not want to have a single point of failure for any service or solution that your business relies on. Just like you look to build redundancies in your network architecture and you schedule backups of your data to ensure no critical information is lost if there is a disaster, so too should you design redundancies and backups for the services your business relies on. These plans should be part of a comprehensive Business Continuity Strategy and they should clearly outline what actions your company will take should you lose access to a service the way that Tonga suddenly lost access to their internet connectivity.

What If There is Only One Option?

It may make perfect sense to say that you should consider risk concentration and have backup plans in place for necessary services, but in the case of Tonga and their internet connectivity, they certainly did not have lots of different options to choose from.  The development of the undersea cable was a huge and costly undertaking, and it solved a specific problem for the citizens of Tonga. However, even after solving this initial internet connectivity issue, Tongan officials should have developed a backup plan to support the new cable initiative.

The reality is that there is never only one option. There are always alternatives, even in the case of Tonga and their internet access.

Back to the Tonga Story

In the case of Tonga, the loss of internet access was much more than an inconvenience. This loss carried very serious social and economic consequences with it because Tonga relies heavily on the other countries, both for daily supplies and for the tourist dollars that drive much of this small kingdom’s economy. According to the BBC, the inability to use email and conduct money transfers caused significant disruption to business for the nation. Although many banks and government agencies have their own satellite links, allowing them to continue operations, many businesses have been negatively affected by the outage, as have the nation’s citizens.

Whether it’s purchasing items at the supermarket, booking flights, or sending emails, thousands of Tonga’s citizens are feeling the impact of the damaged cable. As Mary Lyn Fonua, editor of Matangi Tonga online, states, “At the office, we have to wait for 30 minutes for our inbox to load, then another 15 minutes to open an email. And we haven’t been able to end a single reply so far.”

In an interesting twist to this story, and proof that there is never only a single option, there did end up being another way for Tonga to access the internet - through a small, locally-owned satellite connection. Of course, this connection was not as robust as what Tonga was getting from the undersea cable, but until that cable could be repaired (a process which could take two or three weeks to fix, with repair costs that could exceed $441,735 USD), the local satellite link could at least allow Tonga’s most critical services to resume. Those critical services did not, however, include access to social media, which accounts for 80% of the nation’s international web traffic. People may not be able to access Facebook or YouTube, which have been blocked to ensure that bandwidth is available for crucial government operations and communications, but at least the most important connections could resume, connecting the nation to the world once again.

In Closing

When I first heard this story of Tonga, I was fascinated by it, and I immediately started thinking about how the challenges of this small nation really did offer some lessons in risk concentration and backup planning.

Yes, Tonga did have all their eggs in one basket, but it was a basket that they obviously felt was reliable, and it probably seemed to be the only choice they had available to them. I do not question the choices they made to rely so heavily on that undersea cable, but I do think that if they would’ve had a solid backup plan established before disaster struck, perhaps a secondary satellite uplink like what they found with the locally owned provider, they could’ve at least been able to handle the failure in a method that they had prepared for.

Consider your own business and the services you rely on. What would happen if those services suddenly went away? Would your business be able to continue operations? How would you rebound and what would the process be for getting up and running again? These are the questions you should be asking yourself and which should be covered in your Business Continuity plan. If you do not have all these answers, don’t worry, few companies do, but you do need to start filling in those blanks. Contact Envision today and let us help you look at your organization’s risk concentration and how we can help you develop a compressive plan for Business Continuity and Disaster Recovery.

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