Ukrainian engineers struggle to keep cell phones working

Kyiv — As wartime Ukraine scrambles to keep communication lines open, an army of engineers from the country’s phone companies has mobilized to help the public and policymakers stay in touch during repeated cases Russian missile and drone strikes.

The engineers, usually unseen and unsung in peacetime, often work around the clock to maintain or restore telephone service, sometimes braving minefields to do so. After Russian strikes cut off the electricity that normally powers cell phone towers, they have turned on generators to keep the towers running.

“I know our guys – my colleagues – are very exhausted, but they’re motivated by the fact that we’re doing something important,” said Yuriy Dugnist, an engineer at Ukraine’s telecoms company Kyivstar, after cracking through half a foot ( 15 centimeters) of fresh snow up to a fenced cell phone mast on the western outskirts of the capital Kyiv.

Dugrist and his colleagues shared a glimpse into their new daily routines of using an app on their own phones to monitor which of the capital region’s numerous phone towers are receiving power, either during breaks from the controlled power outages used to conserve energy or by the generators turning on to provide emergency power.

One entry read ominously “Low Fuel” in English.

Team members stopped at a gas station before their round and filled eight 20-liter (5.3-gallon) cans with diesel fuel for a huge tank under a generator that powers a 50-meter (160-foot) cell tower in a suburban village, that hasn’t had electricity for days.

It is one of many Ukrainian cities that have experienced intermittent or no electricity after several rounds of devastating Russian strikes in recent weeks that have targeted the country’s infrastructure. power plants in particular.

Kyivstar is the largest of Ukraine’s top three wireless carriers, with about 26 million customers — or the equivalent of about two-thirds of the country’s population before Russia’s February 24 invasion drove millions abroad, though many have since returned.

The diesel generators were installed at the base of cellphone towers long before the invasion, but they were rarely needed. Many Western countries have offered similar generators and transformers to help Ukraine keep the power going as best it can after Russia’s attack.

After emergency power outages sparked by a round of Russian strikes on Nov. 23, Kyivstar deployed 15 teams of engineers simultaneously and called on “all our reserves” to fix the 2,500 mobile stations in its coverage area, Dugrist said.

He recalled rushing to the site of a destroyed cellphone tower when Russian troops pulled out of Irpin, a suburb northwest of Kyiv, earlier this year, arriving before Ukrainian minesweepers arrived to give the all-clear.

The war’s strain on Ukraine’s cellular networks has reportedly pushed up the prices of satellite phone alternatives, such as Elon Musk’s Starlink system, used by Ukraine’s military during the conflict, now in its 10th month.

Following widespread infrastructure strikes last week, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has convened senior officials to discuss restoration work and supplies needed to protect the country’s power and communications systems.

“Particular attention is paid to the communications system,” he said, adding that no matter what Russia is up to, “we must maintain communications.”


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Sarah Y. Kim

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