(Gaynor Dumat-ol Daleno) A break in an undersea cable has disconnected the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands phone, Internet, banking and other communications with Guam and the rest of the world.
The outage also means credit-card purchases, withdrawing money from ATMs, teleconferencing for health care, and all other communications that go through the CNMI’s only fiber-optic cable connection to the outside world have gone dark, telecommunication company IT&E confirmed Wednesday afternoon.
Until a backup system is in place, the only way to call Saipan is through a few satellite phones, including one at IT&E’s Saipan office and at certain government agencies, the company confirmed.
“In Saipan, there is no connectivity at all,” said James Oehlerking, chief executive officer of Pacific Telecom Inc.
PTI is the parent of IT&E, which invested $14 million in 1997 to lay an undersea fiber-optic cable that links the CNMI and Guam, and from Guam to an undersea cable across the Pacific.
The magnitude of the outage to Saipan’s tourism-based economy is unknown. It’s unclear how residents and tourists are able to continue to pay for food or other purchases at stores without access to card transactions and cash from ATMs.
In Guam, the disruption is limited primarily to customers of IT&E who get text messaging, voice phone and data service on all second-generation and on some third-generation phones, according to the company.
When the undersea cable link to the CNMI was cut, shortly after midnight Wednesday, Saipan, Tinian and Rota lost all forms of off-island communications, IT&E confirmed.
“All of the communications off of Saipan are affected. Not just our cellular customers –– all communications,” Oehlerking said at a press conference Wednesday afternoon.
“It’s not just our subscriber base because other operators utilize the same cable to provide connectivity back to Guam, so it is a very broad, sweeping impact on the CNMI,” Oehlerking said.
“Sorry for the inconvenience and disruption that this has provided, and we are committed to do whatever is required of IT&E — both in efforts and expenditures — to minimize the impact of this outage,” Oehlerking said.
DOCOMO PACIFIC customers in Saipan, Tinian and Rota also lost phone, text and mobile data services, but TV service remains available, DOCOMO announced.
Before the undersea cable brought faster online connection to the CNMI, IT&E used a microwave system, primarily for phone calls and as a backup in the event of the undersea cable’s outage.
The microwave system sustained damage from recent storms, but it’s being restored as an interim solution to bring back some level of communication to the CNMI within about 24 to 48 hours from Wednesday, according to IT&E.
Restoration of phone connection and connection for banking and health-care services are among the priorities, Oehlerking said.
IT&E won’t know, until a few days from now, how extensive the damage to the undersea cable is, or how long it will take to restore it.
The last time IT&E’s undersea cable was damaged prior to this incident was in 2008, when an underwater boulder rolled and snapped the cable, according to the company.
The company stated it’s unlikely that the most recent undersea cable break was caused by unnatural causes, such as a submarine clipping the cable.
Federal and local government agencies have been notified of the break, its impact and the status of efforts to restore service, the company stated.
‘Not totally immune’
“Undersea cables are stable and reliable forms of communication, but not totally immune from undersea activities,” Oehlerking said.
The undersea cable broke in a shallower area between Saipan and Tinian that’s susceptible to strong currents, he said.
IT&E has taken efforts to protect the vulnerability of the undersea cable, and the recent break is an unfortunate setback, Oehlerking said.
The company’s website describes it as “the largest telecommunications company in the Marianas with over 75,000 total subscribers on four islands” — Guam, Saipan, Tinian and Rota.
“IT&E crews have not identified the exact cause of the failure, but indications are that this failure is a result of complications from the recent passing of Typhoon Chan-hom, through the Mariana Islands,” the company stated in a press release.
“We are working round the clock to restore all the services to our subscribers. In the meantime, we are providing first responders free phones and services to make sure they can continue to provide their critical services to the community,” Oehlerking said.
A temporary hotline number has also been set up on Guam. Call 922-4415 for details.
Customers won’t be billed for IT&E services they didn’t get, Oehlerking said.