Homeless Wi-Fi Hotspots: A Charitable Experiment Or Shameless Display Of Technology?

by Gaurav Kheterpal on March 14, 2012

The ongoing South by Southwest (SXSW) conference being held at Austin, Texas offers a unique amalgamation of technology, film and music worlds. Therefore, it’s no surprise that SXSW now ranks among the most popular arts and tech festivals of modern times.

However, this year’s SXSW event is now making news for all the wrong reasons. A charitable marketing program that paid homeless people to carry Wi-Fi signals at the event has triggered a worldwide debate on whether it’s a noble cause or a shameless display of technology that illustrates our degrading moral values.

For the homeless, being a ‘Homeless Hotspot’ is their new claim to fame. Some believe it’s not horrible as it seems while others are questioning whether it’s an act of exploitation or inclusion. To be honest, when I first read the news of “Homeless people as wireless transmitters”, it didn’t go down well with me either. But then, isn’t it better than panhandled by a homeless person on street begging for money?

The company at the center of this controversy is BBH Labs, the innovation unit of the international marketing agency BBH, which outfitted 13 volunteers from a homeless shelter with the devices, business cards and T-shirts bearing their names: “I’m Clarence, a 4G Hotspot.” The homeless people were then instructed to visit the most densely packed areas of the conference, a beehive for technology enthusiasts and trendsetters. They were paid $20 a day, in addition to donations from customers who used their wireless service.

While BBH Labs defended the “Homeless Hotspot” as a charitable experiment, the morale brigade were quick to call the program exploitive. Leading technology blog ReadWriteWeb called it a “blunt display of unselfconscious gall” while Wired described it as “completely problematic” and sounding like “something out of a darkly satirical science-fiction dystopia.” Not to be left behind, the Washington Post wondered “Have we lost our humanity?” Some are already betting on this technology as a viable business idea especially in cities like New York and San Francisco, where urban, tech-savvy crowds often overwhelm cellular networks.

On the contrary, the Huffington Post applauds this out of the box effort to not only help the city of Austin but give back to a mostly forgotten group of people. Of course, there will be as many opinions for the “experiment” as against it. For what it’s worth, the people who matter most – the homeless see it as a job to make money and share their stories with the world.

As for me, I’ve always been opposed to the overuse of technology, especially in areas where we don’t need it. While I don’t doubt the “charitable” intentions of this experiment, I’m worried that this may set a precedent. With mobile devices set to outnumber humans by 2016, I, for one, believe there are better ways for the mobile industry to contribute to the cause of the homeless, than turning them into walking hotspots. What do you think? Please share you opinion by leaving a comment.

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Written by: Gaurav Kheterpal. www.digitcom.ca. Follow TheTelecomBlog.comby:RSS,TwitterFacebook, or YouTube.


John Smith1 March 14, 2012 at 7:42 am

I’m not sure how there’s anything wrong with paying a homeless person and providing them with employment, or for that matter, why this is even newsworthy. Society pays it’s citizens to do all sorts of jobs, how is this any different from any other paying position?


Jordan Richardson March 15, 2012 at 1:34 am

I think Jon Stewart covered this well on The Daily Show, but I’ll just reiterate some points he made with regard to John Smith1’s comment.

For one thing, there’s not “anything wrong” with paying a homeless person for employment, but there is something wrong with essentially making said homeless person an object and having them wear shirts that say “I am a Hotspot” or something to that effect. There’s also something wrong with paying them $20 a day for being a hotspot (what’s next, making homeless people chairs that we can pay to sit on?) when that’s well below any valid wage.

If you can’t discern how this is different from “any other paying position,” you’re either being purposely naive or you aren’t acquainted with the details of this story.

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