Homeless and wireless at SXSW

Homeless and wireless at SXSW

Summary: Believe it or not, homeless people were being used as Wi-Fi hotspots at Austin Texas' South by Southwest Interactive festival.


When I first read that homeless people were being used as mobile Wi-Fi hotspots at Austin Texas' South by Southwest Interactive (SXSW) festival, I didn't believe it. Believe it.

BBH Labs, a self-proclaimed skunkworks innovation branch of the marketing firm Bartle Bogle Hegarty brought Homeless Hotspots, to SXSW they claim, as a “charitable experiment.”It works by giving the homeless 4G Mi-Fi devices. You, a SXSW tech. hipster are then supposed to “introduce yourself, 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).”

How can you tell if one is within range? By as BBH puts, :as you wander between locations murmuring to your coworker about how your connection sucks and you can’t download/stream/tweet/instagram/check-in, you’ll notice strategically positioned individuals wearing “Homeless Hotspot” t-shirts."

Excuse me as I throw up.

BBH states “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.” Since the controversy over this has blown up, BBH has further clarified that “These volunteers were guaranteed make at least $50/day, for a maximum of 6 hours work. This amount equates to more than the Texas state minimum wage of $7.25/hr for the same number hours. Based on donations already received, we know their earnings will be higher than $50 for each of them – as was our intention. What’s been misunderstood is the break-out of money in cash per day vs. what’s received after the program ends. BBH provides a $20 cash ”stipend” to the volunteers each day regardless of their own sales.”

I get being poor. I was raised up dirt-poor in the backwoods of West Virgina, complete with dirt-road, out-house, but a two, not one, two-room school. While I've never been homeless, I know all about poverty. Still, even on my worst days, the ideal of standing around to provide a Wi-Fi fix to a twenty-something, iPad-toting trust fun kid makes me ill.

Saneel Radia, BBH's head of innovation, told Megan Garber of The Atlantic that the point “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.”

I'm sorry, this charitable “experiment” does nothing but turn people into wetware: Walking, talking Wi-Fi hot spots. BBH would have it that by providing this service the homeless could replace such old-media work as selling newspapers. Really? You actually think there's a sustainable business for homeless people walking around offering Wi-Fi services? I Don't Think So.

Want to help the homeless? How about training them to work on Wi-Fi equipment, installation, and services? The world always needs more skilled technicians. Give them skills, not a demoralizing, make-work job.

Related Stories:

CNET: Homeless hotspots at #SXSW: A manufactured controversy

The shame of owning an iPad

Textbook of the Future: The hardware

The FCC’s plan to bring the Internet to the poor

Digital Underclass: Libraries Aren't Dead Yet

Digital Underclass: What Happens When the Libraries Die?

Topics: Mobility, Networking, Wi-Fi

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  • Incapable of learning skills?

    What if they're homeless because they're mentally incapable of learning skills that they might be hired for?
  • Weird but not bad

    This seems really really weird, but not bad as long as the homeless people are actually being paid fairly. If someone was going to pay you $50 a day to be a WiFi hotspot wouldn't you do it?
  • No surprise at the rate of innovation

    The rate of innovation at SXSW is impecable ... it's a like a big hack week party!
  • You're just complaining

    If you think that everyone that is homeless could get a job, you're fooling yourself.

    Besides... let's say that person gets to now eat more often because people pay them to use the hotspot. How is this bad?

    Or would you rather these people not eat while they try to find sustainable jobs?
    Michael Alan Goff
  • Get A Grip

    Get a grip. The homeless have been happy to make the money. Your criticism of the circumstances is a bit akin to criticizing a newspaper for hiring paper persons. I can't imagine what is demeaning or exploitational about the circumstances you are so agitated about.
    • +1 @Znod -1 @SVJNwhatever

      Yep! Homeless guy gets a job for a couple days, some extra money, some attention drawn to his plight - seems like an awesome deal to me.

      Doesn't seem any worse than those poor kids that stand around on a street corner all day with some sign advertising a furniture warehouse out of business sale.

      But hey go ahead and jump on the bandwagon as if you could possibly know what these guys are going through. I'm sure they are happy for the opportunity.
  • Get a life

    I expect the homeless person would not take the job if they did not want the money. Seems like a win-win to me. Which is more degrading, begging or actually doing something to earn money?
  • Charitable? No, reprehensible.

    Thanks for your empathy and understanding that every single human being deserves kindness, respect, and dignity, SJVN. Every human being has a right to kindness, respect and dignity. If people are desperate enough to forgo that just to earn money, because they're desperate to even survive, that doesn't justify a business and those who have plenty of money to exploit their situations and deprive them of those basic human needs. It's too bad that so many in the tech business haven't evolved to that awareness yet, apparently.
  • An alternative Solution

    My message to BHH,
    I will volunteer to offer my program for development at BHH.
    Tipsonly.com offers a profile for everyone who's main income depends on their first public impression.
    That includes homeless persons, street musicians, mascots etc.
    Each person will also receive a background check.
    An account is created where the person can harness tips from people who truly felt or had a unique first impression of the public.
    It also help these persons to pay taxes on incomes - Persons can also generate tips by posting a "Getting Married" ad or a "wedding Ann" ad.
    friends who they have can remember them and send congrats in the form of a tip.
    Overall TipSonly.com idea is to maintain what most people often do. Touch a persons heart on a first impression? and you never know who that person could have been.
    Help to get TipSonly.com started and BHH will help millions of people and also give a genuine money making alternative to homelessness.
    Haven't ever felt like you truly want to reward a person for telling you what corner is the Library located?
    Haven't ever gotten a first public impression that's worth a generous tip?
    Naturally most of us would want to wish that person the best always.
    So let me know then.