Arresting images have emerged from Ukraine of a country banding together to repair the cables, power lines, and other pieces of critical infrastructure that make up the physical internet—a highly coordinated effort among government, internet service providers, and volunteers alike to keep information flowing.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has inflicted severe and consistent damage on the country’s communication infrastructure. Mobile operators’ stations have been attacked, and fiber optic cable lines have been destroyed by air strikes and missiles. With so much riding on getting information about Russian attacks out to the world, repairing broken internet infrastructure has remained a priority.
Approximately 2,000 professional Ukrainian operators are working to aid the effort to fix broken internet infrastructure and provide communication services, and hundreds of civilians have additionally volunteered to help repair and rebuild the country’s internet infrastructure, according to Yurii Shchyhol, head of the State Service of Special Communications and Information Protection of Ukraine. This means reconnecting or laying new fiber cables, restoring power, and getting creative to keep people online. The agency has referred to those doing this work as the “invisible heroes” of the war effort—people risking their lives to put back together fiber optic cables and mobile stations so that the nation can remain in contact with the outside world.
“We are very grateful to them, because they are with us 24/7, and they react to our requests very quickly all over Ukraine, and often provide all the equipment that is needed,” said Shchyhol, who spoke to Motherboard over Zoom and through an interpreter.
The volunteers and private organizations provide equipment, meals, and anything else that is needed as infrastructure is being regularly destroyed. The Ukrainian government normally is most in need of server equipment, supplies to repair optic fiber cables, and other material needed to repair the IT system, but volunteers are additionally providing consumable items to the agency.
Immediately after shelling explosions, agency specialists visit the scene of the damaged cables and start attempting to repair them and restore connections alongside the professional operators. One of the issues that the government faced was that the Ukrainian agency only discovered the location of many of the fiber optic cables after they were destroyed, since the government had not previously interfered with the work of the private internet companies. Once the damage was done, the government asked small local providers, who are usually competitors with one another, to come together to fix the damaged cables.
Russia’s attacks on such infrastructure are part of an effort to cut off Ukrainians from “objective information” about the state of the war and the country, which is exactly why getting the fiber optic cables and stations repaired has been so critical to the war effort, according to Shchyhol. “They’re trying to destroy civilian communication infrastructure,” he said. Keeping the country’s internet connection stable is a key component of the fight against Russia.
“It’s very important to let the population know that Ukraine is doing well in this war and that is our priority at the moment,” Shchyhol said.
One group within the agency has been responsible for coordinating between government officials, the mobile operators, fiber optic repairman, and volunteers to repair the damange, as well as make sure bomb shelters and elsewhere have access to consistent information.
The agency also works “24/7” to combat cyberattacks from the Russian government, which have been continuous since mid-February, according to Shchyhol. By early March, the country had already suffered 2,800 attacks, including 271 in one 24-hour period, according to the agency.
Due to the sensitive nature of information during the war, Shchyhol remained tight-lipped about certain aspects of the operation, but he made clear that soon even more information would be provided. “Ukraine will prevail,” Shchyhol said. “We will win very soon and we will meet with you in the peaceful Ukraine and we’ll talk about how exactly we did it.”
Should people outside of the Ukraine wish to help the communication effort, the agency’s bank details are available on its Facebook page; donations will help it provide jackets, helmets, and additional communication equipment.
All the people involved know how dangerous the work can be. Already, five employees within Shchyhol’s agency have been killed. The agency awards bonuses for work, but Shchyhol said right now, such financial compensation is not the main motivator for anyone in his agency.
“Our main motivator is to win and to restore the peace and quiet life in our territory,” he said.