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Event report | Publication

EUTech4Ukraine: telecommunications actions to support Ukrainian refugees

On 8 November, the European Broadband Competence Offices (BCO) Network hosted an interactive online event for telecommunications and mobile network operators to discuss how to meet the pressing telecommunications needs of approximately 7.4 million Ukrainian refugees in the EU, as well as of those on the ground in Ukraine.

Article title, ‘EU Tech for Ukraine: telecommunications actions to support Ukrainian refugees’, over a photograph portraying two Ukrainian refugees - a young woman of 30-40 years of age with her arm around a little girl of 7-10 years of age, holding a soft toy - keeping warm outside under a blanket, with relaxed and happy expressions, while they have a video call using a smart phone.

The event reflected on current actions as well as on finding more sustainable solutions.

Coordinated actions between the European Commission, Member States, telecommunications companies, mobile operators and other industry stakeholders are essential, as highlighted by Rita Wezenbeek, the European Commission’s Director for Connectivity with the Directorate General for Communication Networks, Content and Technology (DG CNECT). Such actions include the Joint Statement by EU and Ukrainian operators, the impressive efforts and the voluntary actions undertaken by the operators to address the connectivity needs of Ukrainian refugees, free wi-fi hotspots, the donations of telecom equipment through the Digital hub in Slovakia and the work on cyber threat coordination.

The European Commission is also working on a more long-term solution to bring Ukraine into the European Free Roaming Area. In the meantime, the European Commission is assessing the Ukraine’s request for Association to the Connecting Europe Facility (CEF) programme’s Digital strand, which could finance cross-border infrastructure.

The Joint Roaming Statement between European and Ukrainian operators, signed on 8 April 2022 and recently extended until 9 January 2023, provides affordable or free calls and internet use to Ukrainian refugees, allowing them to stay connected with family in Ukraine and in the European Union.

From the EU’s side, the Joint Statement aims to:

  • Reduce wholesale roaming charges, towards cost-recovery only
  • Reduce termination rates for calls originating from Ukrainian telephone numbers, towards the single harmonised EU rates

From the Ukraine’s side, the Joint Statement aims to:

  • Reduce termination rates for calls towards the Ukraine originating from Ukrainian telephone numbers roaming in the EU, as well as from EU telephone numbers
  • Pass on the benefits of reduced wholesale roaming charges to customers roaming in the EU

The latest iteration of the Joint Statement will likely serve as a transitional measure in view of the possibility of the Ukraine joining the EU Roaming area, which covers the 30 members of the European Economic Area, the 27 EU Member States and their outermost regions, as well as three states of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA): Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway.

An overview of the voluntary actions that have taken place under the Joint Statement so far, based on a study by the Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications (BEREC), was provided by Maarit Palovirta, Senior Director of the European Telecommunications Network Operators' Association (ETNO), Ross Creelman, ETNO’s Public Policy Manager, and Emma O’ Toole, Senior Manager of the Global System for Mobile Communications Association (GSMA):

  • 80 EU mobile operators and 37 EU fixed operators offer free international calls from the EU towards the Ukraine
  • 44 EU mobile operators and 27 EU fixed operators offer such calls at a lower price
  • 55 EU operators provide free roaming to their subscribers travelling in the Ukraine
  • EU operators have established Wi-Fi hotspots for refugee camps and public transport locations
  • 2,5 million EU SIM cards were distributed to Ukrainian refugees (March-May 2022)
  • Call centres and helplines for humanitarian associations were established
  • Network capacity was increased along EU borders with the Ukraine

Member States can make good use of the European Social Fund (ESF) and the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) in financing actions to provide refugees with access to essential services such as communication services. The ESF, for instance, may finance vouchers for refugees which they can use to purchase mobile communication subscriptions (SIM cards) as part of their integration pathway into the society of the host Member State. The ERDF can support secure local connectivity through investment in infrastructure and related equipment for the benefit of refugees. The Commission has made sure through its regulatory amendments that there is flexibility in the rules of the ESF, the ERDF, the Cohesion Fund and the Fund for European Aid to the Most Deprived (FEAD) to allow a swift reallocation of available funding to emergency support in the current context. These measures would contribute to the sustainability of the voluntary measures by keeping the burden on both the EU and Ukrainian side manageable.

From the operators’ perspective, the provision of EU SIM cards to Ukrainians will be key for a long-term solution and is a prerequisite to enabling other interventions, such as connectivity vouchers and social tariffs.

Coordinated actions undertaken in Romania may provide a valuable model in this regard, as outlined by Corneliu Mănescu, Deputy General Manager in the Romanian Ministry of Communications and Information Society and lead representative of the Romanian national Broadband Competence Office. Such actions include coordinating with operators to provide 500,000 free SIM cards to Ukrainian refugees in two weeks; creating a national coordinated plan to install free Wi-Fi hotspot in the refugees' camps; and launching a digital application for mobile devices for helping with information and contact points for Ukrainian refugees. In parallel, the Romanian and Ukrainian governments have been working together to improve interconnectivity in border points, and the Romanian government is discussing with the European Commission the possibility of building a submarine cable linking Odessa to Constanza. In addition, BCO Romania is currently developing a legal framework proposing specific measures to support operators with the SIM card related expenditure, and to decrease the price license for the operators for a short period or definite period.

The European Commission actively seeks to support and guide Member States, BCOs, Managing Authorities and National Regulatory Authorities on undertaking actions at national level, making the most of the unspent and existing EU and national funds for connectivity support actions. As underlined by Katarzyna Szczuka, the European Commission’s Head of Unit for Implementation of the Regulatory Framework within DG CNECT, and Gerasimos Sofianatos, the European Commission’s Deputy Head of Unit for Investment in High-Capacity Networks within DG CNECT, the European Commission and the European Broadband Competence Offices Network therefore encourage stakeholders to reach out for further support, and to explore the possibilities, examples and good practices shared through the EUTech4Ukraine forum as well as in the presentations made during this event.

This event was organised as part of the European Broadband Competence Offices (BCO) Network’s work to accelerate high-speed broadband deployment through EU and Member State support.

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