Keeping the country connected
In this day and age few of us can imagine life without broadband. In the areas of war and conflict, broadband infrastructure is even more critical, whether for staying informed about the latest developments on the front line and locally, keeping in touch with family and friends, and even continuing with running a business, work and education. People of Ukraine are finding this out first hand since their country was invaded by the neighbour at the end of February 2022. The communications infrastructure is also crucial for the country's defence capabilities and strategic sectors of the economy. The Ukrainian broadband operators are doing what they can to keep the country connected.
Inevitably, the communications infrastructure and power networks have been suffering damage from missile strikes and on the ground battles. Incumbent Ukrtelecom and other network providers are carrying out repair work as quickly as possible to re-connect the networks. When power cuts occur, batteries and autonomous power generators, available at many internet nodes, are used. The backup systems will become even more critical now that about 40% of the entire energy infrastructure of Ukraine has been seriously damaged.
Ukrtelecom reported that, as of early June 2022, they recorded 175 damaged buildings and sites, 34 of which were completely destroyed. In addition, there have been hundreds of incidents where backbone and access networks were damaged. Another large ISP Volia-Datagroup reported that since February 2022, their technicians have repaired more than 40,000 instances of damage to the network, most of which were directly related to combat operations.
Repair works have been going even in active combat zones, where engineers face unprecedented conditions. The operators’ emergency recovery crews work on a daily basis, with engineers monitoring equipment after emergency power outages to prevent service interruptions. For example, just during the last week of July, access to services was restored in settlements of Donetsk, Lviv, Chernivtsi, Ivano-Frankivsk, Rivne, Kyiv, Mykolaiv, Zaporizhzhya, Odesa and Kharkiv regions.
As of mid-October 2022, Ukrtelecom reported that their services were provided in all regions, except Luhansk, Kherson, and parts of Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia. Internet services were available in 87% of Ukrainian settlements covered by the operator's network. This included the settlements in Kharkiv region liberated by Ukrainian forces earlier in the autumn. In the Donetsk and Zaporizhia regions, the operator managed to keep the networks operating at 55% and 20% of the pre-war coverage, respectively (June 2022).
Since the beginning of invasion, my colleagues have managed to maintain the availability of communication in 87% of the population centres covered by our network. This means hundreds of repair works in difficult and extremely difficult conditions, dozens of repelled cyberattacks, implementation of new technological and IT solutions for the permanent provision of communications to the Armed Forces of Ukraine, social facilities, critical infrastructure facilities and hundreds of thousands of private customers. Unfortunately, a terrible price has been paid for this. Five of our employees were killed, several were injured, we have no permanent contact with dozens, and more than a thousand colleagues became forced migrants.
Yuriy Kurmaz, Director General of Ukrtelecom
One of the important sectors in need of broadband access is education. Ukrainian ISPs are providing schools and educational institutions with internet connection free of charge. As of early October, more than 500 schools across the country had Ukrtelecom’s Wi-Fi access in their bomb shelters. Volia-Datagroup has also provided free internet to more than 500 civilian bomb shelters, humanitarian centres and schools.
When it comes to the Ukrainian Armed Forces, fire departments, energy companies, hospitals and other public services, a significant means of communication is satellite broadband. More than 13,000 Starlink satellite terminals have been donated to Ukraine, with the government also looking for additional providers.
Broadband demand and supply
With more than 7 million Ukrainians having left their homes to get away from hostilities and bombing, inevitably Ukrainian ISPs have lost some subscribers. Of course, not all of the 7.6 million displaced people left the country – some of them moved to the western regions of Ukraine and they still need broadband access. At the same time, some ISPs have been lenient and have not disconnected all those unable to pay.
Since the beginning of hostilities, our goal was to meet the essential need of people to stay in touch. Therefore, we provided services on credit and did not disconnect subscribers due to non-payment. Today, the provision of services on credit is possible only in settlements where we continue to provide services, but due to active hostilities, payment for them is temporarily impossible.
Yuriy Kurmaz, Director General of Ukrtelecom
In recent weeks, demand from Ukrainian households for broadband traffic and new connections has been recovering. Since the end of June 2022, Ukrtelecom has been connecting to fibre networks 2,000 residential subscribers a week, up from 1,600 a month earlier, with the most connections reported in Chernihiv, Odesa, Zhytomyr, Khmelnytskyi and Rivne regions.
The deployment of new infrastructure has been continuing as well. In total, Ukrtelecom rolled out almost 5,000 kilometres of fibre during 2022, with their fibre broadband subscriber base growing by 33% compared to September 2021. The operator completely upgraded their network in Dnipro, replacing copper cables with fibre (FTTC, FTTB and FTTH). The city became the first regional centre in Ukraine, where all the operator's services are provided exclusively on the NGN (next generation network), with speeds of up to 1Gbps available to some customers. Most subscribers were migrated to the new network in 2021, but the last connections were made in May 2022, during the war. A similar network upgrade project is underway in Odesa.
The business focused ISP Datagroup reported a decline in demand for broadband from small businesses at the beginning of the war, as many of them asked to temporarily suspend their services. Some of the businesses relocated to western Ukraine, and the operator offered to transfer their broadband connections to these new locations. Business activities started gradually resuming after a couple of months, and in May 2022 Datagroup recorded a significant increase in traffic and gradual return of demand to the pre-war levels.
The demand for fibre connections from businesses has also recovered. According to Ukrtelecom, in August 2022 the number of new connections increased almost four times compared to March 2022, when the Russian invasion significantly reduced business activity. As of early September 2022, Ukrtelecom had more than 43,000 business customers using fibre broadband connections, more than those still using xDSL technologies.
Ukraine experienced a number of cyber attacks in recent years and months. To address the issue, Ukrtelecom has built a Cyber Protection Security Operation Centre (SOC). Recently, the operator created a security architecture ‘with zero trust’, activated additional cyber security measures and strengthened cooperation with leading vendors of security solutions. To ensure the provision of communications services during the war, Ukrtelecom has developed a new network structure with a high level of duplication of key trunk lines and network core equipment.
Volia-Datagroup has also implemented network upgrade worth UAH 500 million in partnership with Cisco. As a result, the bandwidth on the network has increased ten times, with 11 additional backup links with a total capacity of more than 900+ Gbps built to serve the largest cities of Ukraine.
In the occupied settlements, Russian telecoms operators were involved in attempts to connect parts of the captured Ukrainian infrastructure to Russian communication channels. According to Ukrtelecom, some local and national telecoms providers facilitated these attempts. When it comes to the incumbent, Ukrtelecom’s owner Rinat Akhmetov declared, ‘no SCM business will ever work under the control of Russia’, pledging to remotely disable the equipment under threat from one of their network control points (Ukrtelecom is owned by SMC). As a result, Ukrtelecom stopped operating in Kherson, parts of Zaporizhzhia, Donetsk, Kharkiv and Luhansk regions.
When the war broke out in February 2022, Ukrainian ISPs had to limit broadband speed to residential subscribers to ensure the continuity of services to the Ukrainian army and other special forces. This continued while the communication networks were being restructured to a wartime topology and channels and communication nodes were being restored after shelling. The services returned to normal by now, with the main backbones having significant redundancy and the volume of external channels being three times larger than before the start of the invasion.
The damage to the networks as well as loss of subscriber revenues resulted in significant financial losses to network operators and ISPs, along with expensive local funding and unavailability of international credit. For example, Ukrtelecom reported a 17% drop in their the total revenue for 9 months of 2022 compared to the same period last year.
Ukrainian operators did receive support from suppliers and other partners involved in fibre deployment projects in Ukraine, for example, by them extending payment periods. Also, Ukrtelecom reported receiving significant help in the form of telecoms equipment and IT resources from Orange Polska, Microsoft and others.
The incumbent and other providers are preparing lawsuits against Russia to demand compensation for the losses caused by the invasion of Ukraine. According to preliminary estimates by Ukrtelecom, their total cost of destroyed and damaged buildings, lost equipment, telecoms networks and other assets in the occupied territories is almost 650 million UAH (17.6m USD).
Despite all the difficulties, the country is staying connected and continues to be able to tell their story to the rest of the world.