People try to get a cellphone signal last year in Luhansk, in eastern Ukraine.
Credit: Philippe Desmazes

KYIV, Ukraine — What might cash-strapped and conflict-ridden Ukraine need the most?

With the economy trundling toward default and Russian-backed insurgents still running wild in the east, Western credit and American weapons might be two options.

But try 3G.

Officials and industry leaders here are hailing the sale of network licenses on Monday to Ukraine’s top three mobile operators as a technological milestone, as well as a much-needed financial boost for a country in crisis.

Long a straggler in mobile communications, Ukraine has drawn jeers at home for being years behind its European counterparts. Now, some see the widespread introduction of the third-generation network as a clear sign of progress amid a sea of troubling news.

Not only are the three companies — MTS Ukraine, Kyivstar and Life — instantly injecting close to $300 million into the local economy to purchase the licenses. But they’re also expected to invest hundreds of millions more in new infrastructure and equipment.

What’s more, many praised the transparency and competition of the sale. That’s still a rarity in a country with a long track record of corruption, where lucrative tenders are often doled out in opaque schemes.

Petro Chernyshov, president of Kyivstar, Ukraine’s largest mobile operator, told reporters on Tuesday the auction was a positive sign in a political landscape known more for lofty promises than concrete progress.

“You can discuss reform for a very long time,” he said, “but what happened during the 3G auction is a clean and realistic example of a reform followed through to the end.”

It’s not all good news, though.

While 3G service may reach some of Ukraine’s largest cities within six months, other parts of the country will have to wait several years before they’re fully connected.

Some critics have also questioned the choice of a network that’s already on its way to being outdated by fourth- and even fifth-generation networks.

But officials and other insiders would like the critics to calm down, with some saying the technological advance will ultimately energize Ukraine’s nascent — though admirable — tech and startup sectors.

Dmytro Shymkiv, a deputy head in the presidential administration in charge of reform, also says the 3G rollout is a small part of a broader national strategy to promote digital connectivity.

He points to two current draft laws in parliament: One would regulate public appeals through an electronic register, while the other would create an open data system to make government agencies more transparent."

“We’re moving forward,” Shymkiv said at a news conference Tuesday. “We’d like to move quicker, but we’re going with as much speed as the surrounding environment allows.”

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