As the rest of the world scrambles for the correct response to the Ukraine crisis, telcos and tech companies have come under the spotlight.
Such has been the unprecedented cascade of international reaction to Russia’s invasion of its neighbour that many reactions seem knee-jerk and panicked. The extraordinary level of sanctions levelled at Russia by the West and its allies has compelled the business world to follow suit, or risk being named-and-shamed in the consequent frenzy.
The default position seems to be to cut off anything to do with Russia now and ask questions later. There has been a stampede of companies fleeing reputational damage by hastily exiting the country, an impression augmented by the eccentric nature of some of the responses. Russian artists are being punished for failing to sufficiently denounce Russian President Putin, while Russian-bred cats are no longer welcome at International Cat federation shows.
On a more serious note, the sanctions domino effect is by far the strongest illustration of the control the US has over much of the global economy. Visa and Mastercard, which hold a near duopoly in payment systems in many countries, pulled the plug on Russia after a call between Ukrainian President Zelenskyy and US lawmakers.
“We are compelled to act following Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, and the unacceptable events that we have witnessed,” said Al Kelly, Visa CEO. “We regret the impact this will have on our valued colleagues, and on the clients, partners, merchants and cardholders we serve in Russia. This war and the ongoing threat to peace and stability demand we respond in line with our values.”
That statement indicates Visa is prepared to cut off anybody, even entire countries, that deviate from their ‘values’. That’s its prerogative, of course, but given the lack of competition to Visa, and the fact that it seemed to act in concert with Mastercard, this sets a chilling precedent. Where are these ‘values’ we must all adhere to if we are to be allowed to participate in the digital economy?
Telcos don’t seem to be on the receiving end of this kind of state intervention, yet, but they’re obviously keen to do their bit. The most obvious form for this to take is maintaining communications channels for Ukrainians. A week ago ETNO, the European mobile operator association, published a set of collective commitments from its members. The measures taken by specific operators varies somewhat, however, which is probably what prompted the CEO of BICS to issue an additional rallying cry.
“While operators have offered free calls to people in Europe calling to Ukraine, it is critical that the industry does everything in its power to help those in the Ukraine connect with people abroad,” said Matteo Gatta in a public appeal. “Calls can provide a lifeline in times of crisis, and it is vital that we make it as easy as possible for those remaining in the Ukraine to stay in touch with friends and family in other parts of the world. Only by the ecosystem coming together can this be achieved.”
French telco group Orange detailed its response to the Ukraine crisis at around the time of the ETNO statement via LinkedIn. Meanwhile UK MNO EE seems to have been ahead of the game, as it also communicated via the business social network.
As Allera indicated above, many circumstances are beyond anyone’s control in a war. One technology theoretically shielded from the chaos on the ground is satellite communications and Elon Musk’s Starlink seems to have been stepping up to the plate in Ukraine. This has resulted in public gratitude from Zelenskyy but also calls from other governments (see if you can guess which) to censor Russian media over its network, which Musk has declined to do.
Important warning: Starlink is the only non-Russian communications system still working in some parts of Ukraine, so probability of being targeted is high. Please use with caution.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) March 3, 2022
Talked to @elonmusk. I’m grateful to him for supporting Ukraine with words and deeds. Next week we will receive another batch of Starlink systems for destroyed cities. Discussed possible space projects . But I’ll talk about this after the war.
— Володимир Зеленський (@ZelenskyyUa) March 5, 2022
Starlink has been told by some governments (not Ukraine) to block Russian news sources. We will not do so unless at gunpoint.
Sorry to be a free speech absolutist.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) March 5, 2022
That last tweet from Musk seems to encapsulate the measured but decisive approach to this alarming and confusing situation taken by the telecoms industry on the whole. While other sectors apparently lack direction, strategy or common sense on this matter, telcos are trying to do whatever is in their power to offer assistance to the people most directly affected by this conflict. That’s good to see.