Telephony and Mobile Communication in Ukraine: From Early Days to 5G

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MARYNA DEMCHENKO

Published: 18 Jan 2021

Ukraine series: History

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Ukraine has an eventful history of mobile communication. It goes back to establishing the first telephone exchange in Kyiv and continues with modern-day mobile Internet providers and the 5G network. In this post, we take a look at significant milestones in Ukrainian telecommunication and the prospects for the industry’s future.  

The early days: History of Ukraine's landline 

Our story begins in the late 19th century when the first telephone stations opened in three cities: Odesa (1882), Kyiv and Lviv (both in 1884). Two years later, the forerunner of the modern telecommunication system saw the light of the day. It was the first full-fledged city telephone network built in Kyiv (1886). 

During the 20th century, the capacity of the Kyiv telephone network grew from 300 numbers to over 4,000 numbers. As the demand continued to go up, modernization of the urban telecommunication system was inevitable. 

As such, between 1912-1914, reconstruction took place, which improved call quality and brought on new users. 

However, the First World War and the post-war period put a damper on telecommunications' development, only to be revived in the 30s. During this decade, the capacity of the network grew to 22,400 numbers serviced by four exchange stations that were eventually destroyed soon after World War Two began. 

Reconstruction began in the aftermath of World War Two in the early 40s, and since then, nothing could stop the evolution of telecommunication. By the mid-60s, Kyiv was able to serve 800,000 numbers in a city of 1.1 M people.  

The 90s: The era of portable phones 

Cell phone communication in Ukraine kicked off in the early 90s when UMC, a joint Ukrainian-Dutch telecommunications company, arrived on the market. By the time the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the mobile operator put up six stations for delivering 1G cell communication standard. 

This culminated in a landmark event, highlighted by a 40-second call made by the first President of Ukraine, Leonid Kravchuk to the Ukrainian Ambassador in Germany at the time, Ivan Piskov. 

The event wasn't met with much excitement, though. At that time, there was only one cell phone per 18,000 people. It would be years until on-the-go communication broke the confines of business use. 

Nevertheless, Ukraine kept pace with the world's trends in telecommunication. In 1994, a nation-wide mobile operator, Kyivstar, was founded. It laid the groundwork for communication taking over Ukraine, first in the business sphere and then slowly but steadily permeating our daily lives. 

A few years later, Ukraine reached another milestone: The first Internet provider, Golden Telecom, enters the market, creating the very first corporate networks. However, back in 1996, the Internet was far from being ubiquitous, given its slow speed and sky-high prices. 

People began to exchange text messages in 1998, and the same year commercial SIM cards hit the market. The idea of being reached by phone, wherever you are, gradually set in, and the demand went up.

Finally, by the end of the Millenium cell phones go en masse, as the cost of mobile communication drops. 

The 2000s: Mobile Internet becomes available

The 2000s is a remarkable decade that digitized the world. We can observe a boost in mobile communication in Ukraine during this time. By 2004, there were 12 M users served by three mobile operators: Kyivstar, Djuice, and Jeans. Finally, by 2006, mobile phones were no longer seen as attributes of business and wealth, as from 2004 to 2006 the number tripled to nearly 36 M. 

Once Apple disrupted the industry in 2007, it didn't take long for Ukraine to join the smartphone bandwagon. Just as anywhere in the world, Ukrainians began to use the mobile Internet for daily communication. 

The 2010s: The introduction of 3G in Ukraine 

The next decade brought down the curtain on traditional telephones. The number of payphones over the country reduced from 56,000 to 6,000. It's only natural, given that mobile operators began to provide 3G, and the speed of the Internet skyrocketed. The new-generation standard of mobile internet has drastically changed how Ukrainians' communicate and prompted mobile operators to modernize their infrastructure. 

The next milestone for Ukraine was 4G, which the country started to adopt in 2015. By 2018, three out of six mobile operators launched the 4G standard, which revolutionized mobile communication even more.

Mobile communication in Ukraine in 2021 and beyond 

According to recent data, Ukraine has 55 M mobile operator subscribers in total. Currently, mobile operators include companies like Kyivstar, Vodafone, Lifecell, Intertelecom, Trimob, and PeopleNet. 

The speed of mobile Internet in Ukraine is being continually improved. 4G permeates all spheres of life: from leisure to telemedicine and reaches far-off rural areas in all regions of Ukraine. According to the memorandum signed by the government and mobile operators, 95% of Ukraine's population will get access to 4G by the end of 2021. 

It’s also worth mentioning that Ukraine ranks 4th in the world for the cheapest mobile Internet, and tops the list of countries with the cheapest fixed-line broadband. 

What's next?

In 2020, the government approved an action plan for 5G implementation. A tender for obtaining a relevant license will be held at the end of 2021.

Ukraine's major mobile operators (Kyivstar, Lifecell, and Vodafone), aim to implement 5G at some point in the future. However, a nation-scale 4G network remains a top priority for most operators for the time being.  

Vodafone believes that over the next few years, 4G will remain the primary data transmission technology. The company says it's better off investing in a 4G network nation-wide rather than in isolated 5G points. However, if Vodafone gets the frequencies necessary for implementing 5G via the tender, the chances are high that 5G from Vodafone will appear as early as 2022. 

Lifecell is also an advocate of implementing 4G first, saying that 5G is only needed for machine-to-machine communication on an industrial scale. Yet, the company has already deployed a 5G test segment in their office to explore the technology's capabilities in the current environment. However, the company firmly believes that they need to fulfill their obligations to provide 4G coverage throughout the country before diving into full-blown 5G implementation. 

Kyivstar, alongside its competitors, believes that 4G is powerful enough to meet the demands of most users, such as IoT networks, wireless broadband access, B2C gaming, VR, and private B2B networks. However, the company plans to keep an eye on a license tender. In case of winning, Ukrainians may see the 5G standard from Kyivstar in 2023 or later. 

Despite the fact that the telecommunication industry in Ukraine is highly regulated, mobile operators strive to overcome obstacles on their way towards the ubiquity of the services in all parts of the country. It looks like the next milestone for Ukraine is 4G, while the prospects of implementing 5G remain uncertain. Still, we can say that the major players are adopting modern technologies to stay relevant and not to lose positions on the market. For that, they rely heavily on Ukraine’s pool of tech talent. In particular, data scientists and machine learning specialists are in high demand. 

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