In a move that is both horrifying and fascinating people across the country, the project Homeless Hotspots equipped select homeless individuals around the SXSW festival with MiWi 4G hostpots. The homeless men then carry a sign advertising their condition and inviting people nearby to pay what they want to access the internet.
BBH Labs, a unit of the global marketing agency BBH, gave 13 people from Austin’s Front Steps Shelter mobile Wi-Fi devices and T-shirts that announced “I am a 4G Hotspot.” The company paid them $20 up front and a minimum of $50 a day for about six hours work, said Emma Cookson, chairwoman of BBH New York.
She called the experiment a modernized version of homeless selling street newspapers. All of the money paid for Wi-Fi — an often difficult thing to find at SXSW — went to the participants, who were selected in partnership with Front Steps. ($2 was the recommended donation for 15 minutes of use.)
Critics have claimed the experiment turned homeless people into inanimate objects for the benefit of well-heeled techies. In an online op-ed, The Washington Post wondered “Have we lost our humanity?”
Cookson took pains to say BBH was listening to criticism of the experiment, which ended Monday. It had been meant to begin Friday but rain delayed its full implementation until Sunday.
The premise is not all that different from the idea of street newspapers, publications and periodically where all the jobs and profits are held by homeless people. And offering a 4G hostpot is an innovative way to attract money and attention during the internet deprived South by Southwestern festival. Exploitative or not—Wired said it “sounds like something out of a darkly satirical science-fiction dystopia.”—the fact remains that some 650,000 Americans are without a home any given night.