Interview with Internet Luminary and Investor Bill Tai

When he is not flying five meters above the surface of ocean waters in the beaches near Perth or in the Pacific, or talking blockchain with Sir Richard Branson on Necker Island, or running his community of ocean conservationists, artists and technologists, ACTAI Global, visionary Internet investor Bill Tai can be found working with the United Nations to bring connectivity to developing countries in order to support the UN Global Goals, also known as the Sustainable Development Goals

We had the pleasure to speak with Bill Tai about the generous donation for UNICEF’s Giga Connect project by the Musk Foundation, Elon Musk’s philanthropic organization. GigaConnect.org has received substantial funding as well from various investors including Ericsson, SoftBank, and Dubai Cares, to map out and make an assessment of the number of connected primary and secondary schools in developing countries, and Least Developed Countries, with the aim of bringing high-speed Internet connection to these underserved populations and help them become full fledged members of the global digital economy in the 21st Century. You can read it here below, or scroll down all the way to watch it. (The interview is slightly edited for clarity.)

Maya Plentz: We spoke last I think it was early September 2020, and there were so many parallel events happening at the United Nations, during the annual gathering of heads-of-state for the start of the UN General Assembly. 

There were events that you have collaborated with, participating and speaking at a panel with UNICEF’s Executive Director, Henrietta Fore, and the Chairman of Carlyle Group, David Rubenstein, with the UN Joint SDG Fund, the investment fund for funding the Sustainable Development Goals, and then now there is also the Giga Connect project, the collaboration between the International Telecommunications Union and UNICEF, led by Chris Fabian of Innovate UNICEF. 

Then there was the news that Elon Musk, through the Musk Foundation, is going to be participating in some in way with the Giga Connect roll-out.

I know you have been involved in this process of identifying investors to work with the UN. You are an investor in more than 100 companies, 22 of which went public, now you are also focusing on sustainable development issues, through your companies as well, so tell us a bit what happened in September and then leading up to now, the work that you have been doing with the United Nations Broadband Commission in order to accelerate the connectivity in schools throughout developing countries, in Africa.

Bill Tai: As you mentioned, I started my career as a silicon chip designer first and then became a venture capitalist. I’ve been involved in a number of companies, in Silicon Valley, that first made silicon then communications equipment. I started an Internet service provider that ended up providing connectivity and data centers also in 10 countries in Southeast Asia in the 90s while the Internet was getting build out. Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, and Solomon Brothers took that company public. I could definitely see the impact of bringing Internet connectivity to developing nations some were very developed, like Hong Kong and Taiwan, but others were developing countries. Obviously, the internet creates a profound impact on society and education and after that era I did go on to fund a number of companies, user interfaces to the web, and companies like Twitter, and Tweetdeck. 

That also showed me how the internet could really affect the carriage of information, the carriage of data, and ultimately led me to meeting Chris Fabian who is part of UNICEF Innovation where he spearheaded Giga Connect, along with the great support of Henrietta Fore, the Executive Director of UNICEF, in creating what is the Giga Connect project, which is an effort to bring broadband to every school in the world. 

What’s interesting about UNICEF is that they have obviously spent many decades, with the support of nations all around the world, funding and fueling and building educational institutions, schools, primary schools, grade schools, all over the world. In many developing countries, and they have unique access to the rooftops of those schools. 

We’re now at a point where there’s a big shift in the cost structure of technology and on those roofs you can put a little bit of a solar panel, a little bit of a wi-fi or broadband backhaul by satellite or other wireless technologies, communication systems. You can empower these schools to empower their students in a way that was never possible before, Chris had that insight, and when he described it to me I was so excited because I had lived, as mentioned, the older, more archaic days of laying land lines and fiber and the ease of scalability today is just amazing. Over my career as a venture capitalist I’ve funded many companies. This company that we’re using today, Zoom, included.

Maya Plentz:  Yes. I recently found out that you are also one of the first investors on Twitter. I was listening to one of your interviews, the story is amazing (NDLR Twitter was burning 400K a month and needed a bridge investment fast). You see things before everybody else sees it, you have a knack for it. As a journalist I very quickly realized it would be a great tool and indeed there are, nowadays, lots of journalists on Twitter. 

The Giga Connect project it’s very foundational to this world’s future and when I understood what Chris Fabian was trying to do I was just floored by the ambition of the effort, and also by his comprehensive view of the things that could be done beyond just the connectivity layer.

Bill Tai: Back to your question about the UN Broadband Commission and the International Telecommunications Union, (ITU). A couple of Septembers ago at the U.N. General Assembly there was a joint session, and I was greatly honored to be asked by Chris Fabian, and UNICEF’s Executive Director Henrietta Fore, to give a statement to the UN Broadband Commission along with the CEO of Orange, Vodafone, and One World, the satellite company. And the Giga Connect project got approved by the member states and lots of financial support has since come from companies like Erickson, Dubai Cares, Softbank, and of course, Elon Musk now. 

The world has to deal with inequity today, inequities between rich and poor, developed and undeveloped countries, is growing and growing fast and the closure of that gap is really going to be a function of education and unless that large swath of people that is today unconnected gets connected that disparity is going to grow at an accelerating rate. If you take a snapshot of the world economy now, to try to put it in kind of a big picture, to understand what we’re dealing with here, we have a world Gross Domestic Product, GDP, mostly by developed nations of around 70 trillion, and we have a world debt, sitting on that 70 trillion, something like 270 trillion of debt, that debt grows about 10 percent a year, maybe faster actually last year because of COVID.

Those lines cannot intersect and unless somebody does something about that we’re going to face, at some point that’s got to resolve, or we might have something like Weimar Germany for the whole world. 

We’ve got 2 billion people in developed economies, 5 billion-ish in undeveloped economies the only way to right that ship is to attach those 5 billion into the world economy in a way that they are productive adding and consuming to flatten that stuff out. It’s a little bit like when China entered (initiated the process of ascension) the World Trade Organization in the 90s, prior to that the world was kind of struggling for growth but the opening of the markets in China, the addition of up to a billion new consumers, it happened in chunks. 400 million in developed cities that created both a productive element to add productive capacity at lower prices for the western world and also now an emerging gigantic sucking sound of consumer demand that helped keep the boat afloat while the debt continued to build, that’s got to happen next with the other 5 billion people, and the only way to do that is really to onboard everybody digitally because you’re not going to do it with, you know, chalkboards and paper. Which is the way things have been done in education for a long time. The Giga Connect project it’s very foundational to this world’s future and when I understood what Chris Fabian was trying to do I was just floored by the ambition of the effort, and also by his comprehensive view of the things that could be done beyond just the connectivity layer.

In the 90s when the internet got rolled-out people got connected and things grew on top of that later, but Chris has a very comprehensive view of how to attach these schools and add them to the digital economy quickly so if you look at gigaconnect.org you’ll see a number of things associated with it it’s not just a connectivity layer it’s the addition of the marketplace functions that can come with digital connectivity. 

Whether it’s marketplaces for energy, marketplaces for the broadband connectivity itself, or marketplaces for the transaction layer of goods. It’s a very pioneering effort in that Chris was able to get, for the very first time in the history of the United Nations, to sanction a cryptocurrency fund so I helped him re-announce a cryptocurrency fund at a crypto finance conference Saint Moritz, in Switzerland, about a year ago. That fund allows donations both in Ethereum and Bitcoin to fund the Giga Connect project and it’s also the root of some of the structures that will be enabled by this connectivity layer of connection that will include digital wallets, so that when young people, as they are onboarded, will be able to earn rewards for doing their homework, for being productive. They’ll be able to transact, so they’ll be onboarded a lot faster than in the old world where you teach a kid with a chalkboard, wait 18 years till they grow up, when they go look for a job to get a paycheck, they will be going to be on-boarded really at a very young age to be productive in this economy.

Maya Plentz: That’s very interesting because UNICEF already had an investment fund that was investing in startups in developing countries and they realized that the lack of connectivity wasn’t permitting some of these companies to scale-up as quickly, in Africa and sub-Saharan Africa for instance, so the ambitions that UNICEF and ITU have now are very well positioned. Given also the crisis, the sanitary crisis now, we have seen that this gulf between the haves and the have-nots in the digital space has to be addressed. We cannot find any more excuses. 3.5 billion people in the world are not connected, are not online, and for the economy as a whole, the global economy, we need to be connected. So how was working with the UN Broadband Commission helped, how has working with them helped to advance the projects? 

Bill Tai: Well it’s obviously such an august body of members with really well-placed people to affect change. The joint session was chaired by Carlos Slim and there were many others, heads of major telecommunications or representatives of major telecommunications companies from all over the world, people representing kind of the ministries of digitization if you want to throw kind of a bigger, universal word around it, attending that meeting, so it was a wonderful forum to put this idea in front of people that could affect change in a very broad way and I think it surfaced a lot of support and unanimity around a way to try to address the problem and make a big difference in this world, so I thought it was a wonderful forum for that.

Maya Plentz: Indeed the UN has this power of convening country members. Something which is much more disjointed if the private sector goes after different governments independently. Of course technology companies have been doing this for decades but it makes sense they come through the UN, given its convening power, and the capillarity the UN has through its regional local offices too. So tell us about the participation of the Musk Foundation now, in this next phase of Giga Connect? 

Bill Tai: Elon of course he’s an iconic world figure in so many ways, he’s always pushing the envelope and bringing state-of-the-art technology to lower the friction to a digital life, whether it’s through cars or through satellite connectivity or through power generation through solar, with what he does with solar city, rockets taking us off the planet. Having him add to the support base along with the other folks helping Giga Connect, whether it’s Dubai Cares, or Softbank, or Ericsson. It’s another kind of endorsement from a world figure, a leading entity, a thought leader in today’s world that I think will continue to to give this project more and more momentum, it’s just wonderful.

Maya Plentz: In which ways is he going to be collaborating, what shape it will take?

Bill Tai: He’s written a big check, so first of all he’s a financial backer of the project through the Musk Foundation. He has not put constraints per se on how that capital will be used. But Chris I think is directing those funds toward this early assessment of where to strategically place the Giga nodes. Chris and team are basically defining the map, I don’t know the number of schools that UNICEF has touched over the years but it’s a lot and they’re everywhere, there wasn’t really sort of an accounting back when they were being built, of where are they with a satellite image of where they sit to then understand what is the right way to connect them wirelessly. What is the pattern under which the choices will be made. to make sure that there’s optimal access per population density, so there’s a lot of data science work that’s happening up front. A combination of satellite imagery mapping the places, map overlaying, population mapping, looking at the kind of GDP around that area to see where they can have the most impact so those kinds of things are being done with some of the funds. There’s secondarily a a layer of things above and beyond the pure connectivity layer that, as I mentioned, the connectivity it’s just a pipe, it’s like a pipe that allows the electrons to flow but what’s encapsulated in those electrons matters. So to the extent that there can be economic activity generated by those connections you need sort of an accounting layer which is going to be blockchain. So he’s using very modern technology, there’s an accounting layer where assets sit, sitting on a set of blockchain there’s a transaction layer. How do those things get connected back and forth to other people, and then thirdly, an applications layer so you know those get wrapped in fintech applications, so they get wrapped in educational applications, what are the other functions that allow people, once they are educated in the new world, to be economically productive. So all of those things are being thought through, and I think Elon’s capital is helping to make sure that that gets done right.

Maya Plentz: Thank you very much Bill, it is a pleasure speaking with you once again and great to hear about these ambitious projects and your participation on it and again, congratulations for Zoom and Twitter.

Bill Tai: Thank you very much, I have to give my partner George Zachary credit as well, when I started the Charles River Ventures office on the West Coast I hired a very unique gentleman named George Zachary, he had funded the predecessor company to Twitter. Twitter came out of that and that’s how we ended up doing this investment, the first seed bridge into Twitter and then, later on, I funded Tweetdeck myself. But it was a wonderful journey to bring back to my mind after, I don’t remember what year that was, must have been 2006, or something, so 15 years ago.