As Ukraine prepares for a tough winter ahead with intermittent electricity, city officials and internet service providers are pulling together stop-gap solutions to keep internet service up through regular blackouts.
They’re turning to alternative power sources like batteries, generators and solar panels to keep connected as Russian missiles take out key power plants.
It’s a difficult task and a reminder amid tussles over the supply of Starlink satellites that are providing internet access on much of the front line: fancy equipment doesn’t help if the power is out.
On a flickering video call, Anatoliy Fedoruk, mayor of the city of Bucha on the outskirts of Kyiv, said he is seeking out generators to help keep internet service up, even with all the other demands for power. “The fact that people were able to record the atrocities happening in our city” by posting documentation online makes those connections essential, Fedoruk said.
“This is an online war,” he said. “Connection should be there always.”
On Wednesday, Russian missiles once again hit Ukrainian energy plants. With roughly 40 percent of energy infrastructure damaged and more than 1000 towns and villages facing widespread electrical blackouts, Fedoruk is one of numerous city officials across Ukraine who have emphasized the need to keep civilian network connectivity alive through those kinds of widespread cuts.
Ukraine’s internet providers are taking measures as well.
“All internet service providers, without exception, are now taking care of their electricity reserves,” said Oleksandr Glushenko, a consultant for Ukrainian internet service providers.
Many service providers are pre-installing battery packs on signal receiver equipment — hardware like routers and satellite dishes — to ensure subscribers have network connection even during power cuts. But ISPs can no longer guarantee whether they can provide a network to connect to in the coming months. “They are purchasing generators and solar panels as sources of alternative energy,” Glushenko said.
Starlink satellites and receiver units from Elon Musk’s SpaceX play a significant role in these makeshift infrastructure plans. In the newly liberated territories, where ground fighting has destroyed optical backbone cables and server rooms have been looted, internet service providers depend almost solely on satellite connections, Glushenko said, to restore their own service.
Those units also require electricity of course, and they’re only enough to provide a smattering of service in Bucha even with the lights on.
Civilian internet access via Starlink is particularly limited because the military requisitions so many of the units. Of the 15 Starlink units provided to Bucha upon the city’s liberation, the city has retained only five of them, Fedoruk said, while the rest has gone back to the military.
Oleksii Zinevich, the owner and operator of “Best,” one of the biggest internet service provider companies in the Kyiv region, notes that Starlink units can only serve a small number of users. “One Starlink receiver can provide services for a maximum of 50 to 100 people,” Zinevich said. Any more, and the connection quality suffers drastically.
SpaceX did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Glushenko said those in smaller towns may be better off because the energy demands of network architecture there are lower. In case of a mass power outage, a subscriber may “not have internet in Kyiv, but 100 km away from the capital in a village, he will have it,” he wrote in a text message.
If city-wide electrical systems fail, residents are still looking at a rather short countdown until their connections drop. “Best” owner and operator Zinevich said he has bought “dozens of generators and hundreds of batteries,” but that equipment is only enough to meet six hours of connectivity demands independently without any power from city grids.
Zinevich is going old-school and said he has purchased a diesel power plant to supply his network station.
Fedoruk, the Bucha mayor, said Russian soldiers were intentionally targeting computers, phone, and network signal receivers because they know how “crucially important” civilian access to the internet is in this conflict.
Oleksandr Slobozhan, the executive director of the Association of Ukrainian Cities and one of the chief officials charged with coming up with a cohesive plan to preserve network connectivity across cities, said municipalities are prioritizing key locations like hospitals so they can keep the lights on when surrounding power grids are down.
While there is a special state service to provide emergency network connectivity, by and large, “internet and mobile service providers are responsible for keeping their own facilities running,” Slobozhan said.
His team had requested 10 billion hryvnia ($271 million in USD) from the Ukrainian parliament in the summer to buy generators. But until now, Slobozhan said they have received only 1.5 billion ($41 million USD) hryvnia.