More than a year since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, operators continue to do their best to keep the population connected, despite facing major challenges every day. Light Reading had the opportunity to hear about some of the tasks and struggles involved during a press roundtable with Oleksandr Komarov, CEO of Kyivstar, which is a VEON-owned operator with the largest market share in the country.
Komarov, who traveled to London for the Ukraine Recovery Conference, notes that the frontline has been relatively stable recently, as has the network. While cell overloading due to internal displacement remains an issue, other metrics are on par with the pre-war situation. Maintaining services, however, means addressing a host of challenges that are perhaps unimaginable to most European network executives.
For example, the company has a number of sites that are under constant threat from enemy fire. "Whenever the Russians are able to reach the Ukrainian territory with relatively cheap and simple artillery, the whole line is actually under risk," Komarov says. He gives the example of a site near the Russian and Belarusian border, which has already been destroyed and repaired ten times. Ironically, it is located near the Three Sisters monument dedicated to friendship between the three countries.
The rebuilding process is not always straightforward. Komarov cites the example of a basestation located in the Sumy region – an area in the north of the country that borders Russia – recently destroyed by Russian artillery. The first task is to check on the area's stability before a new cabinet can be brought in and power can be restored. At the same time, Kyivstar needs to secure military authorization to carry out work, which can take some time, as the site may be in danger from artillery fire. The whole process, Komarov estimates, can take around two months.
He says Kyivstar was prepared for many of the challenges brought on by Russia's full-scale invasion thanks to a crisis initiative launched during the autumn of 2021. He acknowledges, however, that it did not foresee the power issues that would occur as a result of Russia's continued targeting of Ukraine's energy infrastructure.
Sourcing Batteries and Generators
Between October and January, power cuts reduced the level of operation on Kyivstar's network by up to 60%, which has prompted the company to put a plan in place to mitigate the problem. Its first phase, which has now been completed, consisted of two main goals.
The first was to upgrade 50% of absorbed glass mat (AGM) batteries to the more advanced lithium-ion chemistry, allowing sites to run for at least four hours in case of a blackout. Going forward, the company plans to have lithium-ion batteries at 70% of its sites by the end of autumn, with all batteries due to be upgraded by next spring.
The second part of the plan was to source more backup generators, increasing stocks from 300 to 2,000. Core sites, most of which already had two independent energy inputs, now have two generators each. Komarov says that none of Kyivstar's core sites have gone down "even for one second" during the war so far.
He admits that the transmission network is trickier. "You might lose only one transit node, and then you will lose 100 sites because of this," he points out. Even more difficult, according to Komarov, is ensuring that the radio access network, which consists of roughly 14,000 sites spread across the whole country, is up and running.
As a result, Kyivstar has created what Komarov calls a kind of critical grid of an initial 1,500 sites, with a decision now taken to expand this to 2,000. That means between 6,000 and 7,000 sites are up and running across all three network operators – Kyivstar, Vodafone and Lifecell.
Ramping up battery and generator capacity under war conditions comes with its own set of challenges. For example, even if the new batteries perform better, they need to be optimized to ensure they function correctly. Early on, Kyivstar had several cases of fires caused by the new batteries, and lost one site as a result.
Storing large volumes of fuel for power generation is another challenge. During blackouts, gas stations may not be operational and the operator's consumption is not sufficient enough to sign large delivery contracts and have fuel delivered by big trucks. At the same time, storing the volumes needed is technically at odds with fire regulations. Another issue related to generators is that they require frequent maintenance. Outside of big cities, it can be difficult to find the personnel needed to do repairs.
Building redundancies into the network has also been an important part of Kyivstar's response to the war. For example, Komarov says that for the most critical channels the company is building radio links on top of fiber, which is riskier from a transmission perspective.
Network Damage in Occupied Territories
Looking back to last year, Komarov says most of the network in liberated territories has been rebuilt. Following the Ukrainian counteroffensive, the company has managed to rebuild 95% of these sites. The remaining 5% are too dangerous to rebuild, he says, as employees would need to work too close to the frontline.
Of Kyivstar's more than 14,000 sites, around 1,600 were located in areas that fell temporarily under Russian occupation. Around 40% of these were destroyed or partially destroyed, while another 20% were damaged. This is compared to around 30% of the network damaged during the initial offensive in spring 2022 in areas north of and near Kyiv.
The company continued to maintain services to occupied territories. In Kherson, for example, which fell under Russian control in the spring of last year, Ukrainian operators could continue to deliver services, as Kyivstar had relocated its core site from Kherson and only had a transit node and a radio access network in place. Russia eventually switched off Ukrainian operators' services at the end of May and launched local operators using existing equipment.
Kyivstar then activated its first basestation in the city on November 13, a day after the city was liberated by Ukrainian forces.
Cooperation has been an important part of Ukrainian companies' response to the full-scale invasion. The regulator directed operators early on to put national roaming in place and they have also supported each other with equipment and transmission, especially to maintain services in occupied territories. More generous passive sharing was also enabled, as previously this would be in place on a strictly 1:1 basis.
While equipment shortages have been an issue for many operators worldwide, Komarov says Kyivstar received a high level of support from vendors for specific types of equipment.
The operator has, nevertheless, experienced certain hiccups, such as vendors refusing to ship equipment to Ukraine. As a result of such decisions – which Komarov says are a violation of vendor obligations – Kyivstar has had to transport some equipment from Warsaw. This was made more difficult by long delays at the border.
Even so, Komarov thinks vendors have for the most part done a good job. For example, when Kyivstar decided to build an additional national core site as a reserve, it was able to do so within five months using Ericsson equipment. Under normal circumstances, Komarov estimates this may have taken around one year.
So far, the war has had only a relatively limited impact on workforce availability, compared to some other sectors. Only 155 employees out of 4,000 have been drafted, due in part to Kyivstar's status as a critical infrastructure company. Some businesses in other industries, Komarov notes, have seen 10% of their workforce or an even higher percentage called up. Under new anti-mobilization legislation, Kyivstar can apply to protect up to 50% of its staff from being drafted. The operator has identified around 150 critical employees it is ready to actively shield from mobilization.
When it comes to members of staff who are serving in the army, Komarov emphasizes that "we're keeping all our obligations to these employees. So they are being paid by Kyivstar on a regular basis." He says casualties have fortunately been relatively low compared to other companies as most employees are engineers and serve away from the frontline. Nevertheless, five of Kyivstar's staff are dead or missing, either in the army or in occupied territories. This includes a Kyivstar network operation center chief engineer who was killed in Bucha.
Reliance on Roaming
The war has also caused significant changes to the geographic distribution of the Ukrainian population, with 7 million people displaced internally as of April, according to government data. This has led to cell overloading, to which Kyivstar is responding to through modernization and additional rollout.
Average usage per customer has not shrunk, even during large power outages which impaired service availability. In fact, Komarov says customers have topped up more to ensure they can use their services when the network is available. There has, however, been a "direct shrinkage of the market because of the customer base," as he puts it. And there has been a large decline in the B2B market, with many companies putting operations on hold.
At the same time, 8.1 million people have fled to Europe, according to UNDP, which has had massive implications for roaming.
Before February 2022, average roaming usage was 10 minutes of voice calls and less than 1GB of data a month per subscriber, says Komarov. This has gone up to almost 300 minutes and 10GB, as people sometimes use their Ukrainian SIM as their main one.
The usage is higher than the average reported by the Ukrainian regulator – as presented by the European Commission. It says international roaming calls from Ukrainian mobile numbers increased from 17 minutes to 47 minutes a month per subscriber, while data traffic increased from 474MB to 3.6GB.
A joint statement from European and Ukrainian operators, facilitated by the EU, was drawn up last April to ensure connectivity for people fleeing war. So far, seven Ukrainian and 20 European operators have signed the joint statement, which lowers inter-operator prices and wholesale charges for accessing networks abroad. Overall, the model is very similar to one in place for inter-EU roaming, says Komarov.
There are plans in place to include Ukraine in the European roaming zone starting in early 2024, but the difference in rates could pose problems. The mechanism, Komarov says, "is actually based on more or less the same voice rate, but much higher data rate" than in Ukraine.
The challenge is that the European roaming scheme was built around occasional usage. Given that many Ukrainians are residing in other European countries for the time being, it is by nature not roaming, Komarov argues, adding that with standard rates it would be a deeply loss-making business.
As things stand, Ukrainians can purchase up to 10GB for "a couple of dollars per month," Komarov says. Kyivstar is not making any money from roaming, with margins at around zero, or slightly positive in the best scenario, he adds. Currently, the company has around 1.3 million Ukrainians using their services in Europe on a monthly basis, rising to around 2.5 million on a three-month basis.
Another outstanding issue that Kyivstar would like to see addressed internationally is the matter of military insurance. While funds have been allocated, insurance products have yet to be created.