Chasing “Internet for all”: my fears, cheers and tears over the last 6 years.

I quit my career in 2016 to chase a plan that could make high speed Internet access affordable for all. In 2022 that effort crashed. This is my story.

Isfandiyar Shaheen
12 min readNov 15, 2022

I am writing this for entrepreneurs in developing countries who are thinking about solving hard problems and chasing the proverbial “moonshot”.

The plan: use a robot (see below) to wrap a fiber optic cable on overhead medium voltage power lines and finance the network under a cost based pricing structure using an Availability Payment scheme.

Facebook would make the robot. My company, NetEquity Networks would arrange the deals and build a cash flow business in the process.

This post is divided in ten sections to help you navigate:

  1. 2015: What my career was like before I quit?
  2. 2016: How I decided to work on this problem?
  3. 2017: Why + how I migrated to the US?
  4. 2017: Why + how I built a deal with Facebook?
  5. 2018: Why + how I chose this solution?
  6. 2018: How I managed my company — NetEquity Networks?
  7. 2019: How I built a deal pipeline?
  8. 2020: How I navigated Covid lock-downs?
  9. 2021: What I did when robot ran into delays?
  10. 2022: What I’m working on now?
My highest high — December 2019 in Karachi at 021 Disrupt Conference.

1. 2015: What my career was like before I quit?

I worked for one of Pakistan’s largest industrial conglomerates, the Dawood Hercules Group. In 2015 I was helping build a cellular tower sharing company (Towershare, acquired by edotco Group) and served on boards of two public companies, Engro Corporation and Engro Foods (51% acquired by Royal FrieslandCampina).

I spent most of 2016 executing M&A deals. I was basically a deal guy and trusted advisor. The Dawoods treated me very well and I am still on excellent terms with them.

2. 2016: How I decided to work on this problem?

In December 2015 I attended a 7 day program at Singularity University in Silicon Valley. That trip convinced me to quit my investing career and spend a few years solving a hard problem. Handing in my quit notice was scary. I had a well paying job, I was on public company boards, I was just 32 and this employer treated me well. What if I’d crash and burn?

More importantly, I had no idea what I’d actually work on. All I knew was I wanted greater purpose in life, wanted to self actualize and felt that solving a hard problem was perhaps the best way to do this.

So I started documenting “What matters to me and why?” in a series of medium posts. This introspection through documentation helped me appreciate my love for the Internet. In parallel my work with Towershare helped me see that while the entire world was touched by mobile Internet signals, half the world was not online.

In Feb 2016 I wrote this post explaining why I wanted to work on this problem and some theories. Most of them were flawed. I cringe when I read my older posts but I keep them as a reminder of my past self.

In May 2017 I delivered this TEDx talk in Budapest to synthesize my thought process and intent. My heart was pounding before I went on stage and I didn’t sleep the night before.

3. 2017: Why + how I decided to migrate to the US?

My undergrad was in the US and I started my career in the US in New York (2006). But I couldn’t get my H1B visa despite having a supportive employer. So in 2009 I moved to Pakistan to be an entrepreneur.

In 2016 when I decided to quit, I knew that the only place where I’d have a shot at chasing a crazy plan like Internet for all is San Francisco Bay Area. I also knew that to chase this plan I can’t be beholden to an employer.

So I looked for options and found one for an EB1A Green Card which is for “Aliens with Extraordinary Ability”. This felt daunting as I didn’t think and still don’t think my abilities are extraordinary. But looking at the criteria I thought, maybe I can put in a solid application?

I put in my application and got accepted! I was over joyed and on August 5th 2017 my wife + our two dogs landed in San Francisco. My daughter Noor was born 4 months later. Meeting her for the first time was perhaps the best day of my life.

4. 2017: How I built a deal with Facebook?

My work with Towershare led me to a Facebook initiative called Telecom Infrastructure Project. Through that project I got to know a few folks at Facebook and also had a very helpful reference through a friend. I proposed to Facebook a consulting arrangement where I’d come in 3 days a week, share what I knew but have the flexibility to speak with their engineers. They agreed.

I stepped into Facebook for the first time on 24th August 2017 and one week later I posted an article on their internal messaging board about what I learned at Towershare. That article was ready by an engineer Karthik Yogeeswaran, who later became my technical partner in chasing this plan.

Point being, it was important to broadcast my intentions and be upfront about what I knew and did not know. This helped me find collaborators. And this is why I love the Internet so much.

In April 2018 I incorporated NetEquity Networks and became the first Entrepreneur in Residence at Facebook Connectivity. I was ecstatic! In just 8 months of landing in San Francisco I had built a deal with a tech giant that had the cash + skills to make me a truly disruptive fiber deployment technology.

Idea was that Karthik would make the tech, I’d do the deals and we would deploy millions of kms of fiber globally!

5. 2018: Why + how I chose this solution?

Karthik helped me understand the Shannon Hartley Theorem which describes the theoretical maximum data carrying capacity of a medium. Optical fiber has about 10,000x more capacity than any other medium. We also observed that of the 5 million cell towers in the world, 90%+ were connected to the electrical grid but hardly 10% were connected to optical fiber.

We figured if we could fiberize the medium voltage electrical grid, the utilities would get a superior monitoring mechanism which will help reduce electricity theft and the same fiber will fiberize majority of cell towers. And if we financed the resulting network using an Availability Payment Scheme we could create an open access fiber utility that delivered cost based pricing.

I also realized that I’d have a lot more flexibility to do deals if I was not a full time employee at Facebook. This meant sacrificing a salary of course but it was good for the mission. So I decided to incorporate a company and through it signed a licensing agreement with Facebook for a technology they would develop. This was pretty scary though because burning through savings is not fun. But I’ve gotten used to it now.

During this period I also learned about how the United States achieved large scale electrification through cooperatives and how those cooperatives were leveraging existing infrastructure to deploy fiber optic networks in undeserved areas. Yes connectivity is awful in rural America! This was a shock to me.

6. 2018: How I managed my company — NetEquity Networks?

I decided to self-finance NetEquity using my savings because I didn’t want any agendas directing my efforts. I genuinely, wholeheartedly was (and still am) dedicated to the mission of global connectivity. I managed this company by myself while working from home and raising an infant (Noor was just 6 months old when NetEquity was incorporated).

My primary skill is financial modelling, researching and getting deals done. So I worked on figuring out an appropriate deal structure. The first item I focused on was defining the problem statement. This work I’m still happy with.

The problem statement helped me see the value of fiber and why facilitating large scale fiber deployments is so important to bridge the digital divide.

By this time I was also trying to bring my tower sharing, deal doing and existing knowledge together. The case study of Enel and Telecom Italia in Italy captivated me. I wrote my thoughts about that here.

Here are two deliverables I created that are worth sharing:

  1. Financing model explanation and the accompanying spreadsheet.
  2. Comparison of Lower Earth Orbit Satellites and Fiber.

In brief, I did everything in this company and was hands-on because I wanted to keep costs low and basically get to a signed deal. Hardest part was the loneliness. But I had Karthik. He was essentially my co-founder but we weren’t in the same company.

7. 2019: How I built a deal pipeline?

I was able to build a deployment pipeline across the following countries:

  • Pakistan
  • South Africa
  • Malaysia
  • Philippines

In Pakistan I had prior relations and a very helpful collaborator. In South Africa I went on a research trip with Facebook and was able to find a senior leader at Eskom (South Africa’s main power utility). In Malaysia, I had help from a Pakistani who worked for Macquarie via Azhar Rehman. And in the Philippines someone I knew from my Towershare days was a senior official at Asian Development Bank.

Point being this pipeline was built through past relationships and a few shots in the dark (ala South Africa). These were people willing to take my call and hear me out. They knew the plan was also nuts but were quite willing to stake their personal reputation to back me. I believe the number of people willing to stick their neck out for you is the true measure of net worth not the sum total of financial assets you have.

2019 was my high point. This was the year when I went on stage at Pakistan’s largest conference and made a tall claim: that we will deploy 10 million kms in 10 years.

I also knew this claim was very hard to achieve but then I remembered all people before me who did big things (like landing on the moon or crossing the Atlantic for the first time). Such people didn’t say “I might get to the moon” they said “they will”.

Balance between optimism, motivating others and remaining grounded is hard and perhaps the most important reflection for any fellow risk taker. I will forever remain grateful to my friends Mansoor and Irfan at Vcast for capturing this conversation. I still listen to it to remind me to stay grounded.

8. 2020: How I navigated Coid?

By February 2020 I felt extremely optimistic. I had the Letters of Intent from investors, substantial interest from the governments I was speaking with to set up the required financing structure and support from senior officials at International Finance Corporation and Asian Development Bank.

I was in Manila February 2020. The signs for Covid were all there. When I entered the Asian Development Bank (ADB) headquarters I could see the signs but I thought, it’s no big deal. I refused to see Covid because I was so fixated on getting my deal done and doing the first deployment.

I remember landing back in San Francisco end February, getting the WORST flu ever (was Covid, but I didn’t know back then) and then the shut-downs started. After that delays also kicked in on the Facebook fiber robot effort (not all Covid related, but many were).

By late 2020 it was clear to me that the robot I wanted would not be ready for a while. I was counting on starting a deployment in 2021 and was also running out of savings. This was a worrying period, my daughter was only 2.5 years old. I cried a number of times this year because I had no idea how I’d get through.

So I attempted to do deals in rural America and also tried to execute on my other deals without the robot. But the world was just not that interested in my effort because Covid was a REALLY big deal. To try and win customers I made this video. This was one tough year.

While I made some progress one thing was clear to me: I didn’t feel as motivated to improve connectivity in rural America. I am Pakistani. The people I had in mind were young folks in developing countries (Pakistan, India, Indonesia, Bangladesh, South Africa…..basically non OECD) in rural towns. My intrinsic motivation was falling apart.

Intrinsic motivation comes from three things according to Self Determination Theory:

  1. Autonomy
  2. Competence
  3. Relatedness

I had #2 and #3 with the fiber robot plan with developing countries as the target. But I didn’t have the same for projects to be done in rural America.

2020 was my lowest low.

9. 2021: What I did when robot ran into delays?

When 2021 started I knew the robot I was waiting on would not be ready for a while. My initial hope / target was that it will be ready early 2021 and I’d be doing deployments by late 2021.

During this period I went back to the drawing board and attempted three ideas:

  1. Use home-equity loans to make users own their fiber. (see article)
  2. Attempt a whole-sale fiber deal without the robot. (see article)
  3. Run an Internet service on a crypto back end.

Number 3 led me to Althea. I helped them sign a revenue share agreement with a wholesale fiber co in Nebraska. Mainly I wanted to see how quickly this could help us get networks built. While we signed the deal and their tech is promising, construction costs remained a key issue.

The bright side of this deal with Althea is that they helped me understand the potential and promise of blockchain and crypto currency.

10. 2022: What I’m working on now?

In January 2022 I started a new company, Wagmi Labs and raised a $2.8 million seed round. This deal happened because in summer of 2021 I fell down the crypto rabbit. In particular this one project called Olympus captivated my attention and I started tweeting about them + also making presentations about their protocol’s mechanism. I want to highlight that many thinkers consider Olympus a ponzi, but I don’t because it’s transparent, not fraudulent and still has a $200 mm+ balance sheet.

See Matt Levine’s piece as an example of a counter argument.

I find the idea of 24/7 real-time financial statements and programmable money quite tantalizing. My crypto analysis tweets led to a meeting with Noah Jessop and that meeting led to another one with Adam Daugelli at True Ventures. A few months later I raised this round without a business plan or even a slide deck. This was / is the first time I raised money for a pre-revenue company.

I spent the early part of 2022 trying to create an open ended fund for institutions who would invest in stablecoins to access attractive yields. In May 2022 I decided to end that effort because I realized I didn’t have the right skill for it. I actually offered my investors their money back at this time. 3 angel investors cashed out, but Noah + True Ventures stayed.

Today I’m working on creating educational content about programmable money. The craziness I chase today is imagining a “currency without a military”. Tactically this just means I’m nerding out, reading up on monetary economics and tying up works of past geniuses with present day experiments in the crypto-sphere. Here is the content, take is for a spin!

Concluding thoughts

Innovation is messy. Chasing moonshots is hard. Shutting down NetEquity was painful. Presenting my plan in Karachi was my height of joy. In these 6 years I grew a lot, learned a lot and cried too. But I landed on my feet. My skills and network kept growing. And that’s the big message I have for you:

It’s not about what you achieve, but what you become when you try to solve hard problems.

When I started this mission I told myself it’s for the unconnected. Not anymore. This mission was for me. It was for my own growth and my own self actualization. I believe I owe myself an incredible life. I don’t know how long I’ve got. And because I so strongly recognize my mortality I like to chase crazy stunts.

If that’s you then I have one other thought to share: there’s no better place to chase a moon shot than San Francisco Bay Area. It’s hard getting here. It’s very expensive to live here. But totally worth it if you can figure out the hoops.

With lots of love,