Engineers who kept the Ukrainian port city online have disappeared or perished in the carnage of the Russian siege. It is to be hoped that once the shelling ends, Ukrainian cities that have been removed from the internet map will quickly come back online.
The cell tower was the only connection between Mariupol and the outside world. It jutted out from the squat offices of internet provider Kyivstar in the center of the industrial port city. Other companies had watched as the Russian attack razed their infrastructure to the ground. Kyivstar’s own base stations had been kept online with backup generators until Russia’s incessant shelling made them too dangerous to refill.
It came down on Kyivstar’s tower. There was no electricity, so two Kyivstar engineers spent days and nights refilling the gasoline that powered the tower. For a while, the techies had the protection of Ukrainian soldiers, but after the Russians broke through the city’s borders, the soldiers had to leave to fight in the streets. Engineers had to protect the tower alone, which they did, risking their lives to keep it online and transferring data.
Then, on March 19, the bombs came.
The Russians had already decimated most of Mariupol, turning apartment buildings, offices, shops and a maternity hospital into ugly black shells. Now the bombs fell on Kyivstar.
The bombs blasted a gaping hole in the center of the Kyivstar building. They turned plasterboard into dust, glass into glittering shards, steel girders into gnarled sculptures. Insulation draped from ledges and stairwells like melted yellow flesh.
The engineers stayed tuned. For two more days they supplied the generators with gasoline. On March 21, Russian troops arrived. They turned off the tower’s power supply, and that was the end of all communications to or from Mariupol.
It was the last day that Volodymyr Lutchenko, Kyivstar’s technical director, heard from his colleagues. For days it was unclear where they were, whether they were dead or alive. Then when Lutchenko spoke to forbes On March 25, he learned they were safe. They had found a way to send a text message to say that they had survived along with the other 150,000 residents of Mariupol, which had a population of 434,000 before the war. They still lived in the Kyivstar offices, whatever was left of them, Lutchenko said forbes.
Others weren’t so lucky. Weeks before Kyivstar’s service was suspended, Ukrtelecom was driven out of Mariupol when the Russians bombed its offices and infrastructure. Ukrtelecom, a provider for the Ukrainian Armed Forces, is the country’s largest landline operator and was once the monopoly operator.
On March 18, one of Ukrtelecom’s employees, like many others, tried to escape. As he drove out of town with his family, Russian troops opened fire, killing him and injuring his loved ones. Other Ukrtelecom engineers have disappeared. The company continues to try to reach them. It has now set up 230 emergency shelters in eight cities to house workers displaced from their homes.
“We were not able to restore services because the damage was too complex and the military actions did not allow us to do anything,” said Mikhail Zhuranov, spokesman for Ukrtelecom. First, the Internet was disrupted after backbone fiber lines and power supplies were destroyed, he said. Eventually, the Russians leveled the company’s infrastructure and offices. “It seems that they tried to destroy all civilian infrastructure, so we were just part of the total destruction in the city and suburbs,” Suranov said.
Lifecell, another major Ukrainian operator, has been without service in Mariupol since February 27, so rapid was the destruction of its telecom hubs. A spokesman for the company said that “destroyed transmission sites or damaged fiber optic cables in the main and replacement routes were to blame. Now it’s impossible to safely bring personnel in to make the necessary repairs, they said.
Today, Kyivstar has resorted to an Ave Maria and pointed all the antennas of the surrounding towns towards the city. If someone is in the right place at the right time, there’s a small chance the connection will reach them.
Elsewhere in Ukraine, the internet remains active, although similar battles are being fought to keep the country’s population centers online. There are heroic stories not only from the engineers, their work in Kharkiv and Okhtyrka and beyond forbes documented, but also by civilians.
In Chernihiv, in a northern part of Ukraine that has been under heavy attack for weeks and continues to be bombed despite Russian pledges to withdraw, Kyivstar is struggling to maintain stations, with only 10 available as of late. In the event of a power failure, the provider relies on petrol generators. Many roads and bridges into the city were destroyed by Russian attacks, so getting engineers to fuel the generators is impossible.
In Donetsk and Luhansk, in eastern Ukraine, Lutchenko said he had frequent contact with a farmer who went back and forth to a generator to refuel it. “Every day some people come, check and help us keep them on the network,” Lutchenko said. “Because it’s occupied territory, we can’t reach them, so they’re helping a lot. We call them partisans.”
The danger remains that Russia, as part of its military regrouping, will attack other cities’ internet lines. “It seems like with a lot of effort you can destroy faster than you can repair,” said Doug Madory, a former US military network engineer and head of internet analysis at Kentik, a US-based network monitor.
If Mariupol ceases to be attacked, with either Ukraine or Russia in control of the city, how long will it take for it to come back online? Not long. If someone can get a tower working, thousands of people could get back online in an instant, Madory said.
“That restores mobile internet to anyone with a handset,” he said. “Then you would have to go through all the landlines and fix them all. It depends on how gnarly fiberlines are, how fast it takes to fix them.” While satellite internet, like that provided by Elon Musk’s Starlink, might be an obvious answer to provide connectivity from space, it doesn’t work, be it because, the user or an ISP on the ground has an antenna.
Having already proven how quickly they can get the internet up and running in besieged cities, Ukrainian telecoms engineers could quickly reconnect Mariupol. If it’s ever safe enough to go back inside.