East Ukraine blackout spurs hunt for cell phone signals

Yuliya SILINA
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Residents in the hope of catching a signal from cell towers make their calls from a bridge outside Donetsk, one of the few places available for mobile connection by Vodafone Ukraine in the rebel stronghold in the east of the country

Every day dozens of people in the Ukrainian rebel stronghold of Donetsk gather on a windswept railroad overpass not far from the frontline, taking the risk of coming under fire.

They go to the bridge at a half-abandoned railway station on the outskirts of the city in the hope of catching a signal from cell towers on the other side of the frontline so they can call their family and friends in government-controlled areas.

On a recent afternoon ringtones blared and phones beeped and buzzed as a few dozen people huddled on the old overpass, pressing their handsets against their ears or staring intently at screens as an icy wind blew.

"Danger! High voltage," read a warning on metal sheets attached to the sides of the overpass about the proximity of power supply lines.

"May God protect you," an elderly woman told someone at the other end of her phone line.

Up to two million people in war-torn eastern Ukraine were left without cell phone access after Vodafone -- the last major mobile operator in the region -- suffered a fibre optic line cut in January.

The outage had all but severed communication between Ukrainians living on opposite sides of the frontline.

While mobile phone access was quickly restored in the fellow rebel stronghold of Lugansk, Donetsk residents remain without proper cellular coverage.

The bridge at the Rutchenkove railway station about 10 kilometres (six miles) from the frontline is one of a few places on the outskirts of Donetsk where residents can still catch a Vodafone signal, however weak.

- 'Better than nothing' -

Artyom, a 29-year-old businessman, had read about sites where cellular connection with Kiev-controlled areas was available in a local newspaper.

"This place is closer to the frontline and we can get the signal from their towers," he told AFP on the bridge. Like others, he declined to give his last name over safety fears.

Passenger trains have stopped passing through Rutchenkove after the outbreak of a conflict between Russian-backed rebels and Ukrainian government forces that has claimed more than 10,000 lives since April 2014.

Viktoria, who came to the bridge with her husband, said they had no other way of reaching relatives.

"This is a necessity," she said.

"We have family members in Ukraine we cannot reach any other way, especially old people who do not know how to use the internet," said the 24-year-old, clutching a phone in her cold hands.

She added she had to try several times before managing to get a good connection.

"In Donetsk there is no connection at all so this bridge is better than nothing."

Some locals use the rare pockets of cell service to access their accounts in Kiev-controlled banks.

Elena, a 40-year-old accountant, took a tram to the other side of the city to receive confirmation about a recent money transfer.

"Ukrainian phone numbers are linked to bank accounts and without mobile connection we cannot access our money, unfortunately," she said.

Vodafone said it had done everything to restore mobile connection.

"The most likely reason for the lack of mobile coverage in the Donetsk region is the absence of power supply," the company said in a statement.

- Phoenix rising -

Pro-Russian authorities have expressed the hope that Vodafone coverage will return.

But a local mobile phone provider launched by the Moscow-backed authorities in 2016 has reaped the benefits of the communications blackout.

Some 280,000 people have joined the rebel-controlled provider called Phoenix since Vodafone went down, bringing the total number of subscribers to more than 900,000, the company claims.

Last month Phoenix introduced a service that is theoretically able to place calls to Kiev-controlled regions -- at international rates.

Many have complained about the provider's poor work but remain sceptical that Vodafone's service would be restored any time soon.

"Everyone understands who benefits from this situation," said Stanislav, a student, who has found a pocket of cell service near a grocery store in the west of the city thanks to social networks.

"You can get connection here!" said the announcement on white sheets of paper in the store's windows.

Phoenix had sold 10 million rubles ($173,000) worth of SIM cards just in the first two days since Vodaphone Ukraine got disconnected in Donetsk, said the student.

"It's just peanuts to the rest of the world but for Donetsk this is a lot of money, especially if this is money made out of thin air."