Ukrainian engineers scramble to make cellphones work

KYIV, Ukraine – As Ukraine struggles to keep the lines of communication open during the war, an army of engineers from the country’s telephone companies has stepped up to help the public and policy makers stay in touch during repeated Russian missile and drone strikes.

Engineers, who are usually invisible and unrecognized in peacetime, often work around the clock to maintain or restore telephone service, sometimes braving minefields to do so. After Russian strikes knocked out the electricity that cellphone towers usually run on, they activated generators to keep the towers alight.

« I know our guys – my colleagues – are very exhausted, but they are motivated by the fact that we are doing something important, » said Yuriy Dugnist, an engineer at Ukrainian telecommunications company Kyivstar, after walking half a foot of fresh snow to reach a fenced mobile phone tower on the western outskirts of Kyiv, the capital.

Dugrist and his colleagues offered insight into their new daily routines, which involve using an app on their own phones to monitor which of dozens of phone towers in the capital region were receiving power, either during breaks from controlled blackouts used to conserve energy or from generators that kick in to provide backup power.

One entry read ominously, in English, « Low Fuel. »

Technicians from Ukrainian mobile phone operator Kyivstar fill jerrycans with fuel from a gas station in Kyiv, Ukraine on November 30, 2022.

Stopping at a gas station before their rounds, the team members filled eight 20-liter (5.3-gallon) jerrycans with diesel fuel for a vast tank under a generator that relays power to a tower 60-foot cell in a suburban town that has had no power for days.

It is one of several Ukrainian cities that have had intermittent or no power following several rounds of devastating Russian strikes in recent weeks targeting the country’s infrastructure – power plants in particular.

Kyivstar is the largest of Ukraine’s three main mobile phone companies, with some 26 million customers, equivalent to around two-thirds of the country’s population before the February 24 Russian invasion sent millions of people abroad, although many have since returned.

A view of a phone tower belonging to Ukrainian mobile operator Kyivstar is spotted near Kyiv, Ukraine November 30, 2022.
A view of a phone tower belonging to Ukrainian mobile operator Kyivstar is spotted near Kyiv, Ukraine November 30, 2022.

Diesel generators were installed at the base of cellphone towers long before the invasion, but they were rarely needed. Many Western countries offered similar generators and transformers to help Ukraine run electricity as well as possible after the Russian blitz.

After emergency power outages caused by a series of Russian strikes on Nov. 23, Kyivstar deployed 15 engineering teams simultaneously and called in « all of our reserves » to troubleshoot the 2,500 mobile stations in their service area, a said Dugrist.

He remembers rushing to the site of a destroyed cell tower when Russian forces withdrew from Irpin, a suburb northwest of Kyiv, earlier this year and getting there before the minesweepers of Ukrainian mines arrive to sound the alarm.

Wartime strain on Ukraine’s mobile phone networks has reportedly driven up the prices of satellite phone alternatives like Elon Musk’s Starlink system, which the Ukrainian military used during the conflict, which is now at its worst. 10th month.

Following widespread infrastructure strikes last week, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky summoned top officials to discuss restoration work and supplies needed to protect the country’s energy and communications systems.

« Special attention is paid to the communication system, » he said, adding that no matter what Russia has in mind, « we have to maintain communication. »


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