Deciding the value of a human hotspot

Several homeless people are now selling wireless Internet access at the South by Southwest show as part of a campaign called Homeless Hotspots, but reactions to the program are decidedly mixed.
Written by Mari Silbey, Contributor on

Advertising and communications firm BBH New York has launched a charity-driven, yet controversial campaign in Austin, Texas called Homeless Hotspots. The program has homeless people offering wireless Internet access in exchange for financial donations, and it's timed to meet demand from an influx of attendees in town for the annual South by Southwest conference.

BBH describes Homeless Hotspots as an attempt to modernize the Street Newspaper model. In that model, teams of homeless people create and distribute their own newspapers to spread the word about homeless issues and generate income. While the BBH program also aims to raise money and awareness, it's not offering any content, but instead creating an ad hoc network (literally) of connected individuals. The homeless participants even wear tee shirts that say "I'm a 4G hotspot" as advertisements for the Internet service available.

The controversy around the campaign appears to stem from two issues. First, Homeless Hotspots starkly illustrates a digital divide, suggesting that we now have a class of people who can afford to pay for Internet access, and a class of people who have to support that access by acting as part of the enabling infrastructure. Second, some observers are questioning whether there's any real commitment to the homeless here. While the homeless people involved are making money, it's not clear what the program is advocating, given the lack of a clear message, and the fact that the same service could ostensibly be provided by a well-placed wireless access point.

Here's how Wired reporter Tim Carmody put it:

This is my worry: the homeless turned not just into walking, talking hotspots, but walking, talking billboards for a program that doesn’t care anything at all about them or their future, so long as it can score a point or two about digital disruption of old media paradigms. So long as it can prove that the real problem with homelessness is that it doesn’t provide a service.

Meanwhile, ReadWriteWeb reporter Jon Mitchell actually spoke to BBH and clarified the good intentions behind the campaign, where the priorities include social engagement, and income for people who need it. However, Mitchell also worries that the program ends up being "all model and no substance."

From a technology perspective, there is an interesting corollary to the Homeless Hotspot axiom. It's the idea that we can all become nodes in an Internet infrastructure that spans populations rather than just geography. Maybe people can make better service providers than stationary access points. Perhaps that's an idea worth exploring as a way to extend Internet access to more people, rather than just limiting it to a privileged class.

[via The New York Times; hat tip @mims]

Photo: from BBH and Homeless Hotspots

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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