2/25/2021 Kim O'Brien

Internet for All: How One Alum is Bridging America’s Digital Divide

Two things drastically changed the life of Isfandiyar (Asfi) Shaheen ‘06.

“Getting on the internet and finding F&M,” Shaheen said. 

The merger of both – internet and education – was the focus of Shaheen’s virtual Common Hour talk at Franklin and Marshall College on Feb 24.

Shaheen is founder and CEO of NetEquity Networks, an infrastructure sharing start-up based in San Francisco. NetEquity is focused on building open-access, fiber-optic networks in collaboration with electric utilities.

“Half the world cannot get internet access, and internet service is really bad in rural areas. I think we need to change that,” Shaheen said.  

After launching his investment banking career in New York, Shaheen moved back to Pakistan in 2009 to set up his first entrepreneurial venture, The Kadmos Initiative. By 2016, he quit his investing career to focus on providing affordable internet to the most obscure parts of the globe.

“I didn't see the point in accumulating wealth when half the world was not online,” he said.

Common Hour -  How to Bridge the Digital Divide in Rural America Without Federal Subsidies

While his mission is global, Shaheen’s talk focused on America’s digital divide.

“It is quite shocking that America is the largest economy in the world with really bad internet infrastructure,” he said. 

In fact, 62% of very rural users have poor internet connectivity, according to a 2020 pandemic study.

What’s the solution? 

“Repeat what America did with electricity, but this time with fiber,” Shaheen said.  

Farmers paved the way for this model through forming electric cooperatives in the 1930s to power rural America. The federal government took notice, passing the Rural Electrification Act of 1936. 

Today, electric cooperatives power 56% of the nation’s landmass.

Treating fiber-optic internet as a public utility could have a similar outcome, Shaheen said. 

Much like America’s approach to electricity, Shaheen’s plan follows the electrical grid to deploy fiber, financing fiber like a utility and distributing bandwidth through an open-access network.

This electrical grid infrastructure can rapidly deploy fiber at a cost of a few dollars per meter. The approach will move America away from limited, high-cost internet plans and closer to high-speed, affordable access.

“Connectivity is not a money problem. It’s an incentives aligning problem,” Shaheen said.

It’s the type of problem that F&M’s broad liberal arts education prepared him to solve. 

“There is complexity. There is challenge. There are a lot of difficult things that need to be worked out, but that's the kind of work that I do.” 

  • America went from 10% electrification in 1936 to 90% by 1959 largely because of electric cooperatives. America went from 10% electrification in 1936 to 90% by 1959 largely because of electric cooperatives. Image Credit: NetEquity
  • In rural America, 62% of users report poor internet service. In rural America, 62% of users report poor internet service. Image Credit: NetEquity
  • Globally, 3.3 million people live within a mobile internet coverage area but are not online. Globally, 3.3 million people live within a mobile internet coverage area but are not online. Image Credit: NetEquity
  • Fiber-optic networks are largely limited to urban centers. Fiber-optic networks are largely limited to urban centers. Image Credit: NetEquity
  • Shaheen discussed the possibility of using a home equity line of credit (HELOC) to help pay for a proposed fiber-optic network cooperative fee. In rural America, 85% of residents are homeowners. Shaheen discussed the possibility of using a home equity line of credit (HELOC) to help pay for a proposed fiber-optic network cooperative fee. In rural America, 85% of residents are homeowners. Image Credit: NetEquity
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