State of emergency: keeping Ukraine’s comms online

CCT talks to the chief technology officer of Ukraine MNO Kyivstar, Volodymyr Lutchenko, about the measures required to keep the network going during wartime.
State of emergency: keeping Ukraine’s comms online

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Critical Communications Today’s usual area of interest generally centres around the use of ‘critical’ comms technology, invariably within what might be regarded as ‘high impact’ environments.

That obviously could include within an emergency services/public safety context, which is something that we cover quite frequently. It could also mean within the oil and gas sectors, utilities, transport and so on.

What we don’t generally tend to focus on, however, is the use of ‘consumer’ comms, which in general don’t possess the requisite criteria for use in real-time, high-pressure, mission-critical situations.

This is beginning to change, of course (for instance, emergency services’ increased use of data). But for the most part, if commercial offerings are part of the conversation, it will mostly be around the role played by MNOs in initiatives such as the Emergency Services Network in the UK.

That being the case, in this article we are going to do something a bit different by looking at the provision of a purely commercial offering, being leveraged within an extraordinarily ‘high impact’ situation. That is, the LTE network provided by Ukraine’s largest MNO, Kyivstar, which the latter has continued to maintain across the course of the country’s war with Russia.

Infrastructure damage

The Russian invasion of Ukraine began in February of last year, with initial fighting taking place in Luhansk Oblast on the border between the two countries. This action was met with resistance from both Ukraine military forces and its population, something which has continued over the course of the past 15-or-so months.

A key part of the Russian strategy – certainly in the recent stages of the conflict, during the European winter – has been an attempt to disable Ukrainian critical national infrastructure.

This has manifested itself primarily in attacks on power facilities across the country, with the effect of causing multiple blackouts. As well as seriously affecting the population’s ability to heat itself, however, these attacks have also impacted its ability to communicate.

Based in Kyiv, Kyivstar is the largest mobile network operator in Ukraine. Its offering covers all cities across the country, taking in around 26 million mobile device customers.

The company’s chief technology officer is Volodymyr Lutchenko. Discussing the impact which the Russian attacks have had on Kyivstar’s ability to provide connectivity, he says: “Since October, the biggest challenge for us has been blackouts. The most recent attack [the current interview took place in March] consisted of around 90 rockets.

“This caused us some problems, mainly on the east of Ukraine, including Kyiv. It has been difficult to deal with, but frankly we’re doing the same that anyone would have in our place. That includes increasing power back-up, with stationary as well as mobile generators.”

He continues: “In these situations, we’re mobilising all our resources. That means not only field engineers but all employees helping in support of these generators.

“That could mean the distribution of fuel, or – with special permission – working with the equipment itself. In conditions such as these, there comes a point where you have to involve everyone, including our subcontractors.”

As well as the damage done to the Ukrainian energy grid on which Kyivstar’s offering depends, Russian attacks have also had the obvious potential to damage the broadband infrastructure itself. According to Lutchenko, this damage has depended in large part on where the constituent parts of the network are situated.

In areas not under control of Russian forces, for instance, around 90 per cent of any damaged infrastructure has apparently been restored. Statistics released by the company to illustrate this effort include 144,000 “emergency and restoration works” carried out over the course of the war, the “vast majority” of which took place between October and December 2022.

Other numbers published by Kyivstar include the reconstruction and repair of 600 damaged sites, alongside the reconnection of 815 “human settlements”.

When asked about damage to the comms infrastructure in particular, Lutchenko reiterates that actually “the biggest issue has been the energy infrastructure, but we’re doing a great job with that”. Regarding the latter, Kyivstar has provided generators to over 1,500 sites while also providing the aforementioned “constant maintenance”.

As eye-catching as the above statistics are, however, they of course only tell half the story. The work, after all, actually had to be carried out by human beings, putting themselves in danger. The repairs had to take place – in the middle of a war zone.

“When the area is liberated, you can’t just enter,” says Lutchenko. “It could be heavily mined or
destroyed altogether. It could be very dangerous, and there are special procedures we need to be applying with military authorities to provide us with supervision.”

These procedures include checking sites for “hidden surprises”. They also include protecting engineers from Russian aggression.

Discussing this, he continues: “To give a recent example in Kherson, there is still one area where it has been very difficult to restore all sites. Every time we tried, artillery begins. We don’t know whether this area is under permanent monitoring from the enemy side, or there is something else.

“There are such cases very often. We’ve had people go missing, and we still don’t know where they are now.”

Be prepared

The invasion of Ukraine has forced the European community of nations to ask a series of fundamental questions around its own continued security. Needless to say, this also includes questions around Russia’s long-term aims, as well as what could possibly happen next following months of military activity.

As unclear as the future seems at this point, however, with the benefit of hindsight the past seems relatively easy to understand. Or, to put it another way, it could be argued that the current situation wasn’t necessarily all that difficult to anticipate.

From the Ukrainian perspective the ongoing difficulties with its neighbour go back years, with the current phase of antipathy between the two nations stretching back to Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. Indeed, it was something – according to Lutchenko – that the Ukraine telecommunications industry had been preparing for since at least 2021.

Discussing this, he says: “We started the preparation earlier than the war, although obviously, you can’t plan for everything in advance. Honestly, that’s the biggest part of our success when it comes to keeping the network resilient.

“I can’t go into too much detail, but we were making preparations in relation to core network redundancy and transport network redundancy, maintaining radio access capacity.”

He continues: “For example, in Kherson, we have a really good, really resilient network. The city was connected to the core network via the use of four independent backbone lines, and we connected three more.

“After we’d completed this work – when the city was occupied – we were surviving with only one ‘limb’. Six limbs were broken and we couldn’t repair them, but we had one limb left.”

Another move carried out with the aim of increasing resilience was a movement of operations away from “on prem” and into the cloud, with Kyivstar also apparently considering building extra core nodes abroad.

As Lutchenko says: “If your core site is down, it doesn’t matter how many kilometres of fibre-optics you have, or how many physical radio sites. That’s why we carried out extra activities to make the core network more resilient in every respect.”

One other crucial area in terms of maintaining communications across the country is the likely unprecedented level of collaboration and co-operation between mobile network operators themselves.

Indeed, if Lutchenko is to be believed, the rules of competition have essentially been suspended in the face of national crisis.

He says: “There’s been a huge level of co-operation between operators. In Ukraine, all telcos have different infrastructures, so we were making fast exchanges of frequency, capacity and transport routes.

“From the beginning of the war, I haven’t been thinking about competition. We are very close with other mobile operators, exchanging information on a daily basis and supporting each other.”

From the user side, this co-operation is perhaps most apparent in the ongoing provision of ‘national roaming’. This, for those who don’t know, allows an individual SIM card to connect to more than one operator network, for instance during times of national emergency.

With the interview coming to an end, CCT asks how Lutchenko is bearing up under the current conditions.

He says: “Our psychology has changed a lot because of this situation, but really, you don’t notice it. Everyone is doing what they need to, without the fear of ‘punishment’ or any additional motivation.

“They just want to do their job as well as possible.”

Author: Philip Mason

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