In conversation with Yuri Matsyk about the current state of Ukrainian telecommunications – and what it needs to survive.
The FTTH Conference took place last month in Madrid.
Last year, the presentation by Andrii Nabok, Head of Department “Stationary Broadband” at the Ukrainian Ministry of Digital Transformation, received a lot of attention. Andrii Nabok gave a review and outlook of the network infrastructure in Ukraine. He impressively explained the importance of a good and stable telecommunication infrastructure and how specialists try to maintain the communication under the strongest efforts.
This year, the main focus was on the panel discussion with Yuri Matsyk, Head of the MDT Directorate for Fixed Broadband of the Ministry of Digital Transformation of Ukraine. As a long-standing and competent partner, atene KOM stands at the side of Ukraine and, together with the Ministry of Digital Transformation of Ukraine (MDTU) and the EU4DigitalUA project, implements a broadband information system for the Ukrainian broadband expansion. On the sidelines of the trade fair, atene KOM had the opportunity to have a personal conversation with Mr Matsyk.
Mr Matsyk, what was the situation in Ukraine before 24 February 2022 in terms of FTTH roll-out? What were your plans in this regard?
First of all, the Ukrainian government set four strategic goals for digitalisation in 2020.
1. Bring 100 per cent of public services online.
2. Provide six million Ukrainians with basic digital skills.
3. Increase the share of IT in the country’s gross domestic product from 4 to 10 per cent.
4. To provide 95 percent of the population and social institutions with mobile and fixed high-speed internet.
So by 24 February, everything was clearly defined and we were in the process of achieving these goals. We created a mobile application called DIIA with online government services, the web portal DIIA.Education, set up the special tax scheme DIIA.City, and we managed to ensure that 90 percent of the citizens:inside had the possibility to use high-speed internet. Over one million Ukrainians in 3,000 villages had the opportunity to use high-speed internet for the first time. Almost three million Ukrainians in 8,000 cities had access to 4G for the first time. And then Russia invaded Ukraine.
How has the situation developed since February 2022?
As you know, our country has been in a full-blown war for fourteen months. Charging a smartphone or tablet has become more important. After all, there is nothing more important than staying in touch with your family. As a first point, I would like to present some figures. The ITU says in its interim report on telecommunications infrastructure damage and resilience:
- ICT networks of operators were partially and sometimes completely destroyed or occupied.
- More than 1,000 cyber attacks targeting IT and telecommunications were reported.
- 20 per cent or more than 6,000 base stations were damaged or destroyed.
- More than 700 fixed-line operators have suffered from destroyed infrastructure.
According to the World Bank, losses in the telecommunications sector amount to two billion dollars.
What do these figures mean? Imagine we are sitting in a room. You have to make a very important call to work or to relatives and you have lost connection to the internet and mobile networks. And on top of that, there is no electricity. And you don’t know how long this situation will last. The next four hours or four days or more. Can you imagine that? Unfortunately, this is our reality. We lived through this every day last winter.
How important has the telecommunications infrastructure been for the Ukrainian armed forces since the beginning of the war?
This war has changed the way we look at the battlefield. When you use drones, you have an advantage locally on the front lines. When you combine this technology with military decision points, you get a strategic advantage in the war. And in this link of the chain, we need to create resilient internet connections between all military points that solve problems on the battlefield.
Also, all military points use the internet connection to run the military divisions. Therefore, resilient internet access must be reliable, safe and secure. We need to build a lot of secure connections between countries and free ourselves from dependence on the enemy. Not only for electricity and gas, but also for the internet.
How badly are civilian infrastructures affected? Can some parts of the country function “normally”?
In the past year, we have had three different major challenges to maintain infrastructure. First, many backbone lines were destroyed – in many places at the same time. Even if users:inside live far away from the front line, they had problems with internet services. This meant that we had to plan a network with additional capacity in the backbone and three independent connection lines between the exchanges. Secondly, some of the mobile towers and fixed networks were temporarily rebuilt after the invasion. Their resilience needs to be improved in the future. And that may mean a complete reconstruction. And thirdly, the enemies destroyed the electricity networks and the Ukrainian telecommunication network was not able to solve this problem. In the last four months we have survived at least twelve hours a day without electricity: my worst experience was not having electricity for 29 hours at a stretch. It was even worse for my family when they had no electricity for 72 hours. During the scheduled power cuts every four hours, 70 per cent of landline services did not work. This proved to be a major problem. Only a passive optical network can be effective in such situations.
How do you manage to keep the telecommunications infrastructure reasonably functional in practical and technical terms? What new technologies and resources have you used? Satellites?
When all mobile operators were confronted with the problem of destroyed base stations, they joined forces and set up internal roaming. This means that if one operator loses a base station, customers can make calls through another operator. The government supported this decision. In addition, the mobile operators received new frequencies without having to pay for them.
At the beginning of the war, telecommunication companies did not stop their services to customers who could not pay their bills. Many shops, petrol stations, post offices and other places opened sites where people could charge devices and connect to WiFi.
The government, telecom associations and businesses receive donations to restore the networks and maintain them. Fixed and mobile internet access has been partially restored. But this is a long and expensive restoration process.
And finally, we deployed Starlink. Some operators used Starlink as an uplink to connect villages. All customers in villages that have a landline have access to the internet. Butscha was one of the first towns to be invaded by the enemy. After the invasion, there was nothing in this town. No water supply. No electricity supply. No gas, no heating. But the mobile operator connected a generator and Starlink to one of the base stations. This gave people the opportunity to charge their phones, call their families and read the news. Later, operators deployed portable mobile base stations in places without internet access. These quick solutions helped a lot.
What support do you receive from other European countries and from the EU institutions?
Today we use about 42,000 Starlink terminals. We received the most Starlink terminals from the Polish government (14,500), from the German government (10,000), from the Initiative of the Ministries of Digitisation of the EU countries (5,000), from USAID and various private companies and individuals.
NOG Alliance is one of our supporters. They have launched the Keep Ukraine Connected initiative. Also UNDP, DG Connect, EU4Digital, EU4DigitalUA, CEF, and others are helping us to restore internet access and implement European legislation. I would like to thank atene KOM GmbH for supporting our initiatives with excellent technical expertise for many years and for the opportunity to speak about Ukraine here on international stages.
In addition, Ukraine is a candidate country for accession to the European Union and we are striving to connect to the European Digital Single Market as well as to integrate into the EU.
What additional support do you need?
We have three urgent tasks today, the solution of which will provide strong support to the Ukrainian electronic communications sector:
1. restoration of the telecommunication infrastructure: today we need to restore the post-invasion telecommunication infrastructure and make all parts of the internet networks, including the international backbone, much more resilient, safe and secure.What solution can help? The government has today started the pilot project to rebuild some cities. We are also seeking funding for projects to restore the telecommunications sector in Ukraine…
The governments of friendly states could support their own companies that are rebuilding the internet network in Ukraine.
It may make more sense for German companies or companies from other countries to join forces with local governments in Ukraine and private operators to jointly build new, more secure and resilient internet networks in occupied cities.
Ukraine is now the best testing ground for innovative solutions and the companies that were able to seize the opportunity during the war will definitely have a competitive advantage over others.
2. human capital: Ukrainian companies have reduced the number of their employees. Some of them have joined the army and some women have gone abroad with their children. This means that we are looking for a way to train Ukrainian employees to become telecom workers who are able to use new technologies.
3. money flow: In the liberated areas, many people leave their homes. Those who stay and continue to live there cannot pay for services. This means that small and medium-sized internet operators do not have enough money to maintain their networks, but will have to build new lines after the invasion. We need to support these SME operators with subsidies.
How do telecommunications companies adapt their operations to the conflict?
There are 34,000 base stations in Ukraine. 93 per cent of them had batteries with different power effect and capacity. Many of them had to be replaced because some batteries were old. Seven percent of the base stations needed generators. Whether this is enough to ensure quality communication during a possible power outage is a big question. At the same time, some of the base stations in the cities are located on the roofs of buildings. There, problems arise in terms of logistics and maintenance, even if generators were available.
In other words, the world still does not have a clear answer on what to do in our situation to maintain the standard quality of communication. But what have we achieved? Mobile operators have been given new frequencies without having to pay for them. The government has also cancelled payments for the electricity pillars. The government, telecom associations and companies have received donations to restore the networks and keep them running. We appreciate their support and realise that the lives of our citizens:inside are our top priority as we fight for our independence.
This is the biggest challenge. That is why we have been working with our partners and stakeholders and the governments of friendly countries to find solutions.
If you had one suggestion for preparing mobile networks for times of conflict, what would it be?
Ukraine’s experience in the war with the aggressor is unique not only on the battlefield, but also on the telecommunications front – especially in developing and strengthening the stability of internet networks and communications. For the future, it would be desirable for Ukraine and the world to advance the combination of various emergency power systems and the growth of independent internet traffic channels at the interstate and intercontinental levels.
Moreover, the war has fully demonstrated the need to increase the number of interconnectors for the exchange of internet traffic to at least three independent points. In addition, the requirements for channel capacity, nodes and data centres of different classes need to be reviewed.
Only when the communications industry recognises its own responsibility for the services it provides to its customers and changes its business model from just making money to providing reliable services in times of crisis will we be able to defeat the attacker.
As I said at the beginning, we are now facing great challenges and I invite you to take the opportunity to test your most creative and wildest ideas in Ukraine!
A wave of solidarity, that is the response to Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine. Countless organisations and initiatives are working to support the people in Ukraine and those who have fled to the best of their ability.
For several years, atene KOM GmbH has been supporting the Ukrainian government in the area of digital infrastructures and would like to continue doing so. In order to make the necessary reconstruction of the infrastructures possible, atene KOM has launched the initiative “Fibre-For-Freedom” and would like to pave the way for the German telecommunications industry and its associations as well as German ministries to make donations in kind and money in the area of telecommunications infrastructures in Ukraine. Based on years of expertise, atene KOM will coordinate the initiative, provide planning services and mediate between all actors.
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