Vodafone Ukraine, wholly owned by Mobile TeleSystems (MTS) of Russia, has been unable to serve nearly two million customers in separatist-occupied eastern areas of Ukraine including the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk since 11 January, due to fibre-optic backbone cable breakage occurring in the buffer zone (no man’s land) between rebel-held and government-controlled territory.
Ukrainian news agency 112.International yesterday (15 January) quoted the leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), Oleksandr Zakharchenko, blaming Ukrainian government forces for the cable cut, and apparently threatening a takeover of the Vodafone network in the breakaway region, stating: ‘Hundreds of the thousands of citizens were left without communication with friends and relatives over the demarcation line. I want to assure that we will respond to this challenge and the proper actions take place. We can take the network under external control.’
Other reports highlighted the opportunity for rebel-backed local mobile networks – namely Donetsk-based Feniks (Phoenix) and Lugacom (Luhansk) – to capitalise on the situation and sign up users in the absence of Vodafone services. Liga.net reported claims that Phoenix had sold at least 50,000 SIM cards in the days since the Vodafone network shutdown, whilst the DPR claims Phoenix has over 600,000 SIMs registered to its network in total. Furthermore, the management of Phoenix recently reported that the company had begun testing 3G technology.
Vodafone Ukraine public relations spokesperson Viktoria Ruban, cited by 112.International, said that the operator has requested access permission from relevant authorities in order to fix the fibre backbone, but thus far to no avail, claiming: ‘We appealed to all responsible, including the Ukrainian administration of Luhansk and Donetsk regions, the Joint Centre for Coordination & Control, and the OSCE SMM [Organisation for Security & Cooperation in Europe Special Monitoring Mission] and ask to allow our maintenance crew to enter the grey zone and repair the damaged line. But there are no results.’
According to Ukraine’s Deputy Minister for Temporary Occupied Territories, Georgy Tuka, the issue of restoring the Vodafone network in the territory will be discussed at a meeting of the Tripartite Contact Group in Minsk on 18 January.
Until now, Vodafone Ukraine has continued to operate its mobile network in most occupied areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, where its Ukrainian cellular rivals have shut down their operations as their infrastructure was compromised or seized by pro-Russian factions.