As repair crews race to restore power supplies after crippling Russian attacks on energy infrastructure, the Ukrainian government has also been working around the clock to come up with creative ways to keep people connected to the vital lifeline of the internet.
The government has been focusing as much on shoring up the resilience of the internet network and building up the country’s satellite mobile capabilities as on delivering other basic services like electricity and heat, Mykhailo Fedorov, the Ukrainian minister for digital transformation, said in an interview this week.
The missile strikes and drone attacks on cities far from the front lines have slowed in recent days, but Ukraine’s national energy company said in a statement that as of Friday, the country was still experiencing a major deficit across the national electricity grid. Since cell towers — which provide mobile internet — and stationary connection operators, which provide cable internet — are powered by electricity, the power outages have delivered a blow to those systems.
But across large stretches of the country, people are still managing to get online through their mobile phones, Wi-Fi networks and in some cases satellites, even as rolling blackouts continue.
Mr. Fedorov, the youngest member of President Volodymyr Zelensky’s cabinet and a former tech entrepreneur who heads up the government’s digital initiatives, said the government has been equipping internet providers with generators and batteries to keep networks running. The government has also partnered with local businesses and international donors to allocate resources.
“Every day, we are tracking the situation across the country — how many cell towers have received batteries, how many new generators have been installed, how does the network correspond to the percentage needed for the basic functions to run,” Mr. Fedorov said.
In areas closer to the front line, maintaining connectivity becomes even more challenging, Mr. Fedorov added.
That is where satellite internet providers like Starlink — which is funded by Elon Musk’s SpaceX — have been vital. Mr. Musk drew criticism when he said on Twitter that his company could not “indefinitely” fund Ukraine’s use of Starlink, though he reversed himself shortly after.
The Starlinks, which offer online connection via orbiting satellites, bypassing conventional providers, have become digital lifelines for both soldiers and civilians in areas where mobile cell providers and cable networks no longer work. Maintaining communications with residents of occupied areas can keep the Ukrainian side informed of Russian operations
“Ukrainians can report vehicle movements or troops, or any other reconnaissance information and they send it to us,” he said, adding, “We have already received 440,000 reports.”
By next week, the government will have brought 30,000 Starlinks into Ukraine with the help of international and local partners, Mr. Fedorov said, with a substantial number sent by Poland and USAID.
Starlinks also have been sent to “invincibility points” — sites set up by the government and private companies around the country where residents can access electricity, heat and the internet during blackouts.
Despite all of the challenges, the number of people accessing mobile networks in Kyiv during the second week of this month was comparable to the same week one year earlier — before the Russian invasion, Mr. Fedorov said.
And the government is committed to doing whatever is necessary to keep networks operating. Maintaining basic services, including online connectivity, is vital to keeping people in the capital, he said.
“You know, the president once said, ‘Empty cities are easier to capture,’ so it’s important for him for people to come back,” Mr. Fedorov said.