Limited service resumes, but CNMI blackouts continue
The Northern Marianas is considering declaring a state of emergency and transferring key public servants to Tinian as a territory-wide communications blackout nears its second week.
The Northern Marianas is considering declaring a state of emergency and transferring key public services to Tinian as a territory-wide communications blackout nears its second week.
The sole undersea fibre optic cable to Guam was severed by a boulder last week, cutting all phone, internet, banking and other services to the outside world.
A limited service has been restored by the cable's owner, Guam-based telecommunications company IT&E, but it could be a month before full service is restored.
Our correspondent in the Northern Marianas, Mark Rabago, says there have been calls for a lawsuit against IT&E, as the territory has incurred serious losses as a result of the outage.
He says people have had no money for a week and typhoon warnings weren't able to be broadcast.
MARK RABAGO: It felt like we were an island [laughs], literally on an island. Figuratively and literally on an island. Effectively we were isolated; no banks, no ATMs, no internet, no phone, no overseas phone lines, no texts, nothing. So it's like what one official, I think from IT&E said, he said that we were like in Armageddon or in a world war. Everybody was basically isolated, Facebook was the least of your concerns. People didn't have money so they would run to the ATM and they cannot dispense cash. There's a sign there that says it cannot dispense cash even over the counter in banks because they have no way of knowing how much you have in the bank so they can't withdraw money. The internet is worse, there's just no signal because of the severed cable and there's just no way of knowing what's happening. We cannot update our stories in the news. We had to downsize our paper from 28 pages to 16 pages because we have no way of getting Associated Press so we only monitor CNN if there's anything big. And we have no way of contacting our reporters from outside too. For the government they had to rely on Guam via satellite phone to get updates especially with typhoon Nangka coming, so it was really hell.
JAMIE TAHANA: So essential services were quite severely affected as you say, you had to rely on a satellite phone for all typhoon updates and there were no banking systems. What flow on effect did this have for the CNMI? Clearly if it's effecting things like money and hospitals and typhoon warnings that's quite serious.
MR: Yes it's like a perfect storm. It's already bad that we didn't have internet, but knowing that there was a typhoon that was coming right smack at us everybody felt panic because you need to load up on supplies to be ready for the storm but if you don't have money... Fortunately some companies issued cheques and some of the banks would cash the cheques so some people got money, but others had no way of getting cash. We were back in the '80s.
JT: Clearly you've got a phone line back now otherwise we wouldn't be talking, so is everything back to normal?
MR: Not yet. There's a large overseas non-resident population here and they usually remit money back to the Philippines, Bangladesh, China, and other countries, so they have no way of sending money back home. Aside from that not all the groceries, not all the supermarkets, not all the restaurants can accept credit cards, so that's another problem, and because of the internet being very, very slow there's no way of doing more high-tech commerce through the internet so that's affecting the CNMI also. There was some suggestion that the government should be compensated because of what happened. I think Lieutenant Governor Ralph Torres has commissioned Commerce and Finance [department] to come up with a study of how much CNMI lost during those five days that they didn't have any internet connection because it's not only because of the commerce, when the restaurants don't get sales the tax that they pay to the government becomes lessened. And also because of flights being grounded because there's no way of knowing, through satellite, through the internet, how the typhoon was developing some were forced to cancel the flights,so that's another problem. And also some tourists decided to come here because they know that they don't have internet connection so there's a lot of problems that have come from this internet apocalypse. There are talks of IT&E being fined. There's also talks of people coming up with a lawsuit, a class action lawsuit against IT&E.
JT: How realistic is it that this phone company IT&E could face legal action either by the CNMI government or by a business law suit?
MR: I actually don't know; I don't have a legal mind, but there's already talks up on capitol hill of GTA -- a Guam telecommunications company -- coming here and trying to get private and public effort to come up with a second undersea fiber optic cable, because aside from IT&E failing with it's fiber optic cable, it was supposed to have backup; but the backup didn't work. So those are the types of questions that are arising right now.
JT: And the government now is considering declaring a state of emergency, what would that possibly do?
MR: Well, because we are so dependent on the internet right now, that everything's ground to a halt, everything's slow, they're looking at transferring some key departments, probably finance, and another departments that need internet connectivity to Tinian, because the internet sped on Tinian is OK, so they're looking at transferring some key personnel.
JT: And how long is it before this can be fully restored, that the cable's fixed, and the CNMI is back in the modern world?
MR: IT&E contracted a company from Taiwan that fixes under water cables. But they have to come here by ship so it takes another like two weeks before they come here. So two weeks coming here, and then fix it, so we're looking at probably three weeks for the undersea fiber optic cable to come online again.
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