Russia’s attacks on Ukraine’s electrical grid are straining the war-torn country’s mobile-telephone network, leading to a global hunt for batteries and other equipment critical for keeping the communications system working.
Ukraine’s power outages aren’t just putting out the lights. The electricity shortages also affect water supplies, heating systems, manufacturing and the cellular-telephone and internet network, a vital communications link in a nation where fixed-line telephones are uncommon.
Consumers can charge their cellphones at cafes or gas stations with generators, but the phones have to communicate with base stations whose antennas and switching equipment need large amounts of power. With rolling blackouts now a regular feature of life in Ukraine, the internet providers are relying on batteries to keep the network going.
The stakes are high, since Ukrainian officials are using positive news of the war, speeches by President
and videos distributed by cellphone to maintain popular support for fighting Russia. First responders and evacuees rely on the mobile network, and a long-term loss of communications in major cities would compound the existing problems of electrical, heating and water outages, the companies say.
Labor shortages have exacerbated the mobile-network issues as many Ukrainians have been displaced by the war or gone to the front to fight. In December, the chief executive of Ukraine’s Lifecell mobile operator, Ismet Yazici, went into the field himself to wheel in a generator and restore backup power at a cell tower, according to the company.
But the biggest problem is power equipment. “We are not asking for money, we are asking for batteries,” said
manager of the division responsible for technology at Lifecell, part of
. “No one has a stock of batteries.”
Lifecell, the country’s third-biggest provider, needs roughly 250 generators and 36,000 lithium-ion batteries, a spokeswoman says.
Ukraine’s mobile network wasn’t built for wartime, and most base stations have a type of lead-acid battery known as absorbent-glass mat, or AGM. These batteries can only power a station for a couple of hours and take a long time to fully charge when the power comes back on.
Mobile operators are seeking lithium-ion backup systems, since they last longer during an outage than the lead-acid-based batteries and can be recharged quicker. Yet, mobile executives say certain base stations—which include the antennas, switching equipment and power source—need generators to keep the power going.
The U.S. Agency for International Development in November supplied 50 diesel generators to a Ukraine telecommunications and internet association to help keep cellular and fiber-optic services online, a spokeswoman for the agency said.
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U.S. diplomats are on a global hunt for supplies of high-voltage transformers and other equipment to rebuild the Ukrainian grid, which would help power supplies to the telecommunications industry, as well as chemicals and metallurgy, said
the assistant U.S. secretary of state for energy, after a recent tour of the country.
Meanwhile, Kyivstar, Lifecell and the other big Ukrainian operator—Neqsol Holding’s Vodafone Ukraine—approached manufacturers to get more backup batteries to replace their lead-acid batteries but were told the units would take three or four months to produce, said Stanislav Prybytko, the director for mobile communications at Ukraine’s ministry of digital transformation.
Kyivstar has received and installed 8,000 new batteries for its system, and Vodafone Ukraine has installed 5,000, according to executives from the two companies.
The new batteries aren’t a panacea since they only provide up to half a dozen hours of power for the station, less than the length of many power outages.
Even before Russia began repeatedly striking Ukraine’s power grid in October, mobile providers were strained by repairs in regions that have seen fighting and growing usage, including a big increase in YouTube videos about the war, executives say.
Now an average of 25% of base stations across the country are down at any given time as a result of rolling power outages, Mr. Prybytko said. During the worst of the Russian strikes on the power system to date in late November, 59% of base stations weren’t functioning.
“It was unexpected for us because the attack was so massive and had a big impact on the energy system,” Mr. Prybytko said from his darkened apartment in December.
Officials focused on the telecom sector are working with energy officials to change the rules giving power-access priority to select strategic sectors such as hospitals and emergency services. Mobile operators want the mobile network to receive priority access to get more hours of power each day, Mr. Prybytko said.
All three mobile operators now allow roaming in each other’s networks at no extra charge, a move that increases the likelihood that a customer can connect with a competitor’s network if the tower nearest him or her is down.
The firms are also working to restore Ukrainian mobile service in areas previously occupied by Russia, including the city of Kherson, where Kyivstar put up a base station in the middle of the city’s central square, said
the company’s chief technology officer.
In Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine, mobile equipment was typically destroyed, with the Russian side working to set up its own network. “Some base stations were robbed—they simply took the equipment,” Mr. Zadoya, of Lifecell, said. “Quite a few were destroyed totally.”
In areas where the network has been damaged during the war, military officers and authorities sometimes have access to satellite communications, including Starlink internet service, provided by Elon Musk’s SpaceX.
But ordinary aid workers often rely on the mobile-telephone network. “It makes communicating with our local partner organization and the authorities in these high-risk areas extremely difficult,” said
Ukraine head of the International Rescue Committee.
For Kyivstar’s Mr. Lutchenko, the power shortage has gotten personal, preventing him from reaching his mother 60 kilometers outside of Kyiv for two days.
“I went to her by car just to check on her and how she is,” Mr. Lutchenko said. “She is a mother of a telco expert, so she knows how it works.”
Write to William Mauldin at email@example.com
Corrections & Amplifications
Stanislav Prybytko is the director for mobile communications at Ukraine’s ministry of digital transformation. An earlier version of this article gave an incorrect job title for him. (Corrected on Jan. 15.)
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