The engineers who kept the Ukrainian port city running have disappeared or died in the carnage inflicted by the Russian siege. Hope remains that Ukrainian cities wiped off the internet map will quickly come back online once the bombing ends.
The cell tower was the only link between Mariupol and the outside world. It protruded from the squat offices of Internet provider Kyivstar in the center of the industrial port city. Other companies had seen the Russian assault raze their infrastructure. Kyivstar’s base stations had been kept online with backup power generators until Russia’s relentless bombing made it too dangerous to recharge them.
Arrived at the Kyivstar tower. There was no electricity, so two engineers from Kyivstar spent days and nights replenishing the petrol that powered the tower. For a while the technicians had the protection of the Ukrainian soldiers, but after the Russians broke through the city limits, the soldiers had to abandon them to fight in the streets. The engineers were left alone to protect the tower, which they did, risking their lives to keep it online and transmitting data.
Then, on March 19, the bombs arrived.
The Russians had already decimated much of Mariupol, turning apartment buildings, offices, shops and a maternity hospital into ugly black shells. Now bombs have fallen on Kyivstar.
The bombs blew a hole in the middle of the Kyivstar building. They turned plasterboard into dust, glass into glittering shards, steel beams into gnarled sculptures. The insulation covered ledges and stairwells like molten yellow flesh.
The engineers resisted. For another two days they fueled the gasoline generators. On March 21, Russian troops arrived. They cut power to the tower, and that was the end of all communications to or from Mariupol.
It was the last day Volodymyr Lutchenko, technical director of Kyivstar, heard from his colleagues. For days it was unclear where they were, whether they were alive or dead. So while he was talking to Lutchenko Forbes on 25 March he learned they were safe. They had figured out a way to send a text message to say they had survived along with the other 150,000 residents still in Mariupol, whose population was 434,000 before the war. They were still living in the Kyivstar offices, whatever was left of them, Lutchenko said Forbes.
Others haven’t been so lucky. Weeks before Kyivstar service was cancelled, Ukrtelecom he had been forced out of Mariupol when the Russians bombed his offices and infrastructure. Ukrtelecom, a supplier to the Ukrainian Armed Forces, is the country’s largest landline operator and was once the monopoly supplier.
On March 18, one of the Ukrtelecom employees tried, like many others, to escape. As he and his family left the city, Russian troops opened fire, killing him and wounding his relatives. Other Ukrtelecom engineers disappeared. The company continues to try to reach them. Meanwhile, it has set up 230 shelters in eight cities to house employees displaced from their homes.
“We weren’t able to restore services because the damage was too complex and military actions didn’t allow us to do anything,” Ukrtelecom spokesman Mikhail Shuranov said. At first, the internet was disrupted after fiber lines and electricity supplies were destroyed, he said. Finally, the Russians razed the company’s infrastructure and offices. “It looks like they tried to destroy all civilian infrastructure, so we were just part of the total demolition of the city and suburbs,” Shuranov said.
Lifecell, another major Ukrainian provider, has not had service in Mariupol since February 27, so rapidly has its telecommunications hub been destroyed. A company spokesman said that “destroyed transmission sites or damaged optical cables in primary and backup routes” were to blame. It was now impossible to get personnel in safely to make the necessary repairs, they said.
Today Kyivstar resorted to an Ave Maria, pointing all the antennas of the surrounding cities towards the city. There is a small chance that if someone is in the right place at the right time, the connection can reach them.
Elsewhere in Ukraine, the internet remains active, even as similar battles are being fought to keep the nation’s population centers online. There are tales of heroism not only from the engineers, whose work in Kharkiv and Okhtyrka and beyond, who Forbes has documentedbut also by civilians.
In Chernihiv, in a northern part of Ukraine that has come under heavy attack for weeks and continues to be bombed despite Russian promises to back down, Kyivstar is struggling to keep emplacements active, with only ten available at latest count . With the electricity cut in and out, the supplier relies on fuel generators. Many roads and bridges in the city have been demolished by Russian attacks, so it is impossible to bring in engineers to feed the generators with petrol.
In Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine, Lutchenko said he was in frequent contact with a farmer who was walking back and forth to a generator to supply it. “Every day, some kids come, check and help us keep them online,” Lutchenko said. “Because it’s occupied territory, we can’t reach them, so they’re helping a lot. We call them partisans”.
The threat remains that Russia, as part of its military grouping, will follow other cities’ internet tubes. “It looks like you can break it down faster than it can fix it if you put a lot of effort into it,” said Doug Madory, a former U.S. military network technician and director of Internet analytics at Kentik, a U.S.-based network monitor. .
When Mariupol is no longer under attack, when Ukraine or Russia have control of the city, how long before it comes back online? Not much. If someone gets one tower up and running, it could immediately put thousands of people back online, Matory said.
“This brings mobile internet back to everyone with a phone,” he said. “Then you should go through all the fixed lines and fix them all. It depends on how gnarly the fiber lines are, how fast it takes to fix them. While satellite Internet, such as that provided by Elon Musk’s Starlink, might be an obvious answer for providing connectivity from space, it doesn’t work unless the user or a ground-based Internet provider has an antenna.
Having already demonstrated how quickly they can get the Internet up and running in beleaguered cities, Ukrainian telecommunications engineers could make quick work of reconnecting Mariupol. If ever he will be safe enough to reenter.