From The Atlantic:
South by Southwest now has its very own controversy. And it involves homeless people employed as, yes, wi-fi hotspots.
It seemed straight out of South by South Onion: the homeless people of Austin, being used as wi-fi hotspots for bandwidth-hungry, gadget-happy conference-goers. Wait, Homeless Hotspots? Wi-fi hotspots made out of homeless people? It’s got to be a joke, right?
But, no. Homeless Hotspots is a very real — and very earnest — initiative, imported to Austin for this week’s South by Southwest Interactive festival by BBH Labs, the skunkworks-y innovation unit of the marketing firm Bartle Bogle Hegarty. (You may remember them from such projects as the Axe Body Spray oeuvre, as well as The Guardian’s recent Three Little Pigs ad.) BBH Labs has worked in the past on the problem of homelessness in New York City, through its Underheard in New York project; Homeless Hotspots, they say, is an attempt to bring a similar “charitable experiment” to Austin.
Participants in the program carry MiFi devices with 4G connectivity. “Introduce yourself,” BBH explains, “then log on to their 4G network via your phone or tablet for a quick high-quality connection. You pay what you want (ideally via the PayPal link on the site so we can track finances), and whatever you give goes directly to the person that just sold you access.”
The point of the project, says Saneel Radia, the head of innovation at BBH Labs, was not to objectify homeless people, or, more broadly, to treat human beings as tech infrastructure. On the contrary, he says: It’s trying to empower them.
The project attempts to modernize the street-newspaper model employed to support homeless populations, Radia explains.
As digital media proliferates, these newspapers face increased pressure. Our hope is to create a modern version of this successful model, offering homeless individuals an opportunity to sell a digital service instead of a material commodity. SxSW Interactive attendees can pay what they like to access 4G networks carried by our homeless collaborators. This service is intended to deliver on the demand for better transit connectivity during the conference.
Continue reading the rest of the story on The Atlantic