Engineers who kept Ukraine’s port city online have gone missing or died in the carnage inflicted by Russia’s siege. Hope remains that Ukrainian cities knocked off the internet map will come back online fast once the shelling ends.
The cell tower was the only connection between Mariupol and the outside world. It jutted from the squat offices of internet provider Kyivstar in the center of the industrial port city. Other companies had watched as the Russian onslaught had flattened their infrastructure. Kyivstar’s own base stations had been kept online with backup power generators until Russia’s ceaseless shelling had made it too dangerous to refill them.
It came down to Kyivstar’s tower. There was no electricity, so two Kyivstar engineers spent days and nights topping up the gasoline that powered the tower. For a while the techies had the protection of Ukrainian soldiers, but after the Russians breached the boundary of the city, the soldiers had to abandon them to fight in the streets. The engineers were left to protect the tower alone, which they did, risking their lives to keep it online and transmitting 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 blew a gaping hole in the middle of the Kyivstar building. They turned plasterboard to dust, glass to glittering shards, steel girds to gnarled sculpture. Insulation draped off ledges and stairwells like melted yellow flesh.
The engineers hung on. For two more days, they fed the generators with gasoline. On March 21, Russian troops arrived. They killed the power to the tower, and that was the end to all communication into or out of 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, if they were dead or alive. Then, as Lutchenko spoke with Forbes on March 25, he learned that they were safe. They’d found a way to send a text message to say they’d 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’s offices, whatever was left of them, Lutchenko told Forbes.
Others haven’t been as lucky. Weeks before Kyivstar’s service was wiped out, Ukrtelecom had been forced out of Mariupol when the Russians shelled its offices and its infrastructure. Ukrtelecom, a provider for the Ukrainian Armed Forces, is the biggest fixed-line operator in the country and was once the monopoly provider.
On March 18, one of Ukrtelecom’s employees tried, like many others, to escape. As he drove out of the city with his family, Russian troops opened fire, killing him and injuring his relatives. Other Ukrtelecom engineers have gone missing. The company continues to try to reach them. Meanwhile, it has set up 230 shelters across eight cities to house employees forced out of their homes.
“We were not able to restore services because the damage was too complex and military actions didn’t allow us to do anything,” said Ukrtelecom spokesperson Mikhail Shuranov. At first, the internet was cut off after backbone fiber lines and electricity supplies were destroyed, he said. Finally, the Russians leveled the company’s infrastructure and offices. “It seems that they tried to destroy all civil infrastructure so we were just a part of the total demolition in the city and the suburbs,” Shuranov said.
Lifecell, another of Ukraine’s major providers, hasn’t had service in Mariupol since February 27, so quick was the destruction of its telecommunications hubs. A spokesperson for the company said that “destroyed transmission sites or damaged optical cables in the main and backup routes” were to blame. Now it was impossible to get staff in safely to make the necessary repairs, they said.
Today, Kyivstar has resorted to a Hail Mary, pointing all antennas from surrounding towns toward the city. There’s a small chance that if someone is in the right place at the right time, the connection might reach them.
Elsewhere across Ukraine, the internet remains up, though similar battles are being fought to keep the nation’s population centers online. There are tales of heroism not just from the engineers, whose work in Kharkiv and Okhtyrka and beyond, which Forbes has documented, but from civilians, too.
In Chernihiv, in a northern part of Ukraine that’s been under heavy attack for weeks and continues to be bombarded despite Russian pledges to back off, Kyivstar is fighting to keep stations up, with just ten available at last count. With electricity cutting in and out, the provider is relying on fuel generators. A lot of roads and bridges into the city have been demolished by Russian attacks, so it’s impossible to get engineers in to feed gasoline to the generators.
In Donetsk and Luhansk, in the eastern part of Ukraine, Lutchenko said he’s in frequent contact with a farmer who’s going back and forth to a generator to refuel it. “Every day, some guys are coming, checking and helping us to keep them on the network,” Lutchenko said. “Because it’s occupied territory, we cannot reach them, so they’re helping a lot. We’re calling them partisans.”
There remains the threat that Russia, as part of its military regrouping, will go after other cities’ internet pipes. “It seems like you can destroy faster than you can fix if you put a lot of effort into it,” said Doug Madory, a former US military network technician and director of internet analysis at Kentik, a US-based network monitor.
When Mariupol is no longer under attack, when either Ukraine or Russia has control of the city, how long until it’s back online? Not long. If someone can get a tower up and running, it could instantly put thousands of people back online, Madory said.
“That restores mobile internet to everybody with a handset,” he said. “Then you’d have to go through all the fixed lines and fix all of those. It depends on how gnarly fiber lines are, how fast it takes to repair those.” 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 unless the user or an internet provider on the ground has an antenna.
Having already proven how quickly they can get the internet up and running in besieged cities, Ukraine’s telecommunications engineers could do a quick job of connecting Mariupol again. If it’s ever safe enough to go back in.