Ukrainian Engineers Struggle to Keep Internet Going as Russian Bombs Fall Around them

Under the rubble of bombed-out Ukrainian cities, technicians risk their lives to keep the country online. Their government calls them the “hidden heroes” of the war.

Hen March 11, in the city of Okhtyrka, in northeastern Ukraine, Russian missiles hit the headquarters of Kyivstar, the country’s largest Internet and mobile operator, with 20 million customers in a country of 41 million. It was one of Russia’s more precise strikes and knocked out the city’s telephone line. Before the war, the town of Okhtyrka, which had a population of about 50,000, had already suffered attacks on its power plant and residential buildings. Now, many city dwellers could not do something they had taken for granted for a long time: a phone call.

Kyivstar had a problem. His staff in the area were already working on restoring lines in other besieged areas of the district. They called on staff 60 miles south in the larger city of Poltava to come to their aid.

The company had hoped that the official safe corridor into and out of Okhtyrka β€” a corridor agreed by Ukraine and Russia to allow humanitarian aid in and evacuees out β€” would allow technicians to get to work. But the Russian fire did not stop. That didn’t stop engineers heading into town, where they found the place where the company’s machines routed internet and telephone connections – a so-called hub station – destroyed. This meant that all the base stations in the city had to be replaced by the new node. Despite the threat of further strikes, Okhtyrka regained its telephone network. Volodymyr Lutchenko, technical director of Kyivstar, describing the operation Forbes, it reported not only on the tasks the engineers had completed, but also on whether the team had survived them.

“Thanks to the quick actions of our colleagues, we were able to restore the work of 11 Kyivstar base stations,” said Luchenko. “The specialists arrived in Poltava successfully, safely, unharmed and satisfied with the results they achieved.” (Forbes although it was a story previously described by other Kyivstar employees on social media, but could not independently verify the story).

Elon Musk may have provided free internet from space via the Starlink satellites used by tens of thousands of Ukrainians, but back on Earth, network engineers are heading to war zones to fix cables and base stations. I was damaged by Russian bombs. Not only are curfews, low light, bad weather, fried wires, and burnt server racks hampering work, but there’s also the near-constant threat of dying from Russian President Vladimir Putin’s senseless war. The Ukrainian government hailed the country’s engineers as the “hidden heroes” of the conflict.

Earlier this month in Kharkiv, just down the road from Okhtyrka, two technicians working for Lifecell, the country’s third-largest telecommunications provider, were stuck on a hatch cover. The city has been under siege since the start of the war, and surrounded by bombed-out cars, smoke-blackened buildings, and steel beams that crumble like broken bones, men try to repair fiber-optic links damaged by Russian weapons.

Hundreds of miles west, Volodymyr Poltavchenko, Lifecell’s Kharkiv regional manager, is tasked with organizing engineers remotely. From his office, he can see which stations are damaged, which routers or switches are down. He can then decide what can be stored, what can’t, and what equipment is required to keep data flowing in Kharkov. Poltavchenko said the best time to get the engineers out was in the morning after the bombs stopped, “the window when it’s completely safe.” According to Luchenko of Kyivstar, if necessary, the engineers are accompanied by armed escorts of the Armed Forces of Ukraine or the Territorial Defense Forces during a ground attack. IT guys don’t carry guns, he said.

“Every day after every attack, we try to restore our base stations and services to our citizens,” said Bohdan Kashyntsev, head of Lifecell’s internet connectivity division, bald and bearded next to his long-haired colleague, both sounding embroiled in Europe’s most important war since 1945. for the citizens of a country that is determined, patient, and fresher than you might expect. About his engineers, Kashintsev said: “They are kind of like medical workers – they are not. they treat someone, but they support people.”

Where Ukraine once had competing telcos whose profit motives fueled the desire to take business from each other, they now share not only networks but also employees. In fact, there are no independent operators in wartime Ukraine. The companies, notably Kyivstar, Vodafone and Lifecell, help repair each other’s bombed-out base stations and allow customers to seamlessly switch to another operator’s network if their contracted operator shuts down.

Outside help is coming from major network providers, Kashintsev said, whether from Swedish telecoms kit provider Ericsson or its rival Huawei, a Chinese company that has seen two non-executive members of its UK board resign in recent weeks over the company’s decision not to censure. Russian occupation. (Huawei did not comment on what kind of assistance it provided to Ukrainian companies at the time of publication.)

The reason why engineers stay in places like Mariupol and Kharkiv, where tragedies are becoming more and more upsetting every day, and where Russian shells are killing more and more people, is simple: the truth, they say. “The first thing the occupier does in the occupied territories is to set up his own ‘zombie broadcast,'” said Luchenko of Kyivstar. “Therefore, access to the internet and accurate information are vital in the current situation.” As Kashintsev puts it, if Ukrainians have access to as many sources of information as possible, they can decide “what is true and what is false.”

Kashintsev, whose wife and daughter were evacuated to Poland, like many others in Ukraine, are motivated by the need to do their part for their country. “They’re trying to defend their city … with network defenses,” he said. Some cannot leave behind elderly parents or other family members who need care. Then there’s the simple explanation that networks allow families to stay in touch, while internet and phone connections often mean human contact.

For some telecom engineers, constant work is a distraction, Kashintsev said, noting that no one in the country has weekends anymore. “It helps us think a little more positively because we don’t have a lot of time to watch the news,” he said.

To try to ensure security while dealing with the remote network, engineers work from basements or bomb shelters built months before the Russian invasion. Food and water supplies are provided by their employers. No injuries or deaths were reported by the telecommunications companies that spoke Forbes.

There is a theory that Russia is happy that Ukraine’s mobile and Internet networks should use Ukraine’s persistent networks, whether for intelligence gathering or for its soldiers to report home. “They can use it for their own intelligence purposes,” an intelligence official from a country allied with Ukraine told a briefing with British reporters on Friday. β€œIn an operation, you’re always going to have what we’ll call a profit-and-loss assessment of intelligence. And perhaps they feel that the intelligence they gain through access to these opportunities is more valuable to them than the disruption.”

Such concerns are one of the reasons Kashintsev believes the use of Russian-made software can be a risk, as it could capture sites Kremlin agents could use to direct their attacks. But the official added that it was clear that the Ukrainians had shown remarkable resilience in maintaining their Internet networks, “putting a lot of effort into this area.”

Whether or not Russia actually uses Ukraine’s adaptable networks, the fact remains that Ukraine’s resilience extends beyond its military and political leadership to everyday people, such as IT workers who keep the lines of information open and flowing to and from Ukraine.


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