Stepping up to the challenge
As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues, Kamil Szczepański, head of international data sales and procurement at Orange Polska, tells Melanie Mingas how the company is supporting its neighbours with technology, resources and shelter
When Russia invaded Ukraine in late February, governments, NGOs and global private sector players took prompt action to support the country, its citizens and businesses, and its communications infrastructure.
Télécoms Sans Frontières was in country within days, operators across Europe dropped wholesale charges for roaming and termination, and the industry donated free minutes, data, handsets and SIM cards to refugees – all measures that helped those fleeing the conflict, and those who remained in Ukraine.
However, operators in Ukraine still need support as the conflict is continues to destroy their infrastructure.
Kamil Szczepański, head of international data sales and procurement for Orange Polska, says: “Since the beginning of the war, Orange Polska has been in close contact with its Ukrainian wholesale partners as we had daily business contacts with them before the war.”
During the first days of the invasion, this work was mostly about planning and stabilising long-distance voice and roaming services, which saw an immediate spike.
“There is a large Ukrainian community in Poland who wanted to contact their relatives and friends on the other side of the border, and an increasing number of refugees were contacting their close ones who stayed in Ukraine,” Szczepański continues.
On the wholesale side, Orange Polska has continued to provide access to its IP network and IX platform (TPIX) for Ukrainian carriers, as they increase the resiliency of their access to global networks.
“This process is still ongoing as the situation has not stabilised,” he adds.
Keeping wholesale connected
In the face of physical and cyberattacks, networks across Ukraine have been decimated and engineers have been working around the clock to repair damage wherever it is possible to do so. Although telcos there are willing and able to fund the extensive repairs needed, they still need their neighbour’s support to access the tools they needed.
In the war’s early days, Orange Polska focused on the network, particularly around the border. It improved the capabilities of 16 existing sites and, together with T-Mobile, which shares some passive infrastructure with the telco in Poland, provided six mobile facilities where they were most needed.
Since then, as a result of what Szczepański describes as the “growing devastation of the network”, Orange Polska has been meeting requests for replacement telco kit, from patch cords to managed devices, and providing whatever it has in stock.
“In terms of data services, we contacted our colleagues and asked ‘What do you need and how can we support you?’” says Szczepański. “Their needs differed, but generally could be grouped in three categories: they needed additional backbone telco capacity between Ukraine and Poland, urgent access services in Poland for Ukrainian institutions, and changes to payment terms following local restrictions on international transactions and wire transfers.”
A coordinated effort
On other occasions, the company cooperated with third-party suppliers to get local access or interconnections in data centres so services could be established.
“They stood up to this task also, in this extraordinary situation – each lead time was reduced, formal issues were simplified, and all business matters were solved with one call. The unity and support from any Polish or international carrier operating in Poland was and still is great,” he adds.
Szczepański’s team has also coordinated some of the support offered by others.
For example, one of Orange Polska’s international wholesale customers donated its excess service in Poland for Ukrainian operators in urgent need.
“We identified operators who needed this kind of service, and they were able to receive it,” Szczepański says.
By law, SIM cards in Poland must be registered to access a network, posing an additional challenge to those arriving from abroad, specifically Ukraine.
Orange Polska’s field teams arrived at the border on the first day of the war to distribute and register SIM cards. Between 24 February and 15 May, they distributed more than 500,000 free starter kits to Ukrainian citizens and 473,500 packages offering free services.
Cezariusz Banaszek, who oversees the work environment at Orange Polska, was one of the volunteers registering starter kits.
“Refugees come for all kinds of help,” he says. “What they need most, however, is conversation and understanding. They are locked in shells which hide their personal dramas. As they open, we learn what war really is.”
Reflecting on his volunteer work in Polish train stations in the early days of the conflict, Banaszek adds: “It didn’t matter which operator, they were queuing where the wait for the starter kit was shortest. All that mattered was to get in touch with loved ones as soon as possible.”
To date, the Orange Foundation has co-financed more than 130 aid projects with the help of almost 1,000 volunteers, and Orange has opened various premises to shelter more than 600 displaced people, include its training centre in Serock, near Warsaw. The first families arrived there on 26 February and today it houses 330 people, almost all women and children.
Orange says that several dozen people live in another building in Żórawina, and Orange Polska is working with local government authorities to prepare more buildings to shelter refugees.
Orange Polska’s employees have also organised fundraisers and given refugees somewhere to stay themselves.
“Since the situation is still unpredictable, we stay in contact with our colleagues working on a daily basis on their needs as they appear,” says Szczepański.