Austin, Texas is known for being eccentric. In fact, the city’s motto “Keep Austin Weird” effectively reflects that. So it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise that you would find something called “Homeless Hotspots” in the city. The experiment that begun as a charitable endeavor by a New York-based marketing company called BBH Labs has sparked major controversy at this year’s SXSW Interactive conference.

Homeless Hotspots has recruited 39 homeless people in Austin to carry a 4G mobile hotspot and sell their wi-fi access to people attending SXSW. The rate for wi-fi access is $2 for 15 minutes. Payment for the wi-fi access is taken through PayPal or Venmo and goes directly to the homeless hotspot attendant.

Homeless Hotspots is modeled after charitable organizations found in major cities that publish free newspapers which the homeless can distribute for a donation. In San Francisco you might know these as “Street Sheets.” SXSW is serving as BBH Labs first testing ground with the service.

Why are people so mad about this? Well, the venture gives people the idea that the homeless are just inanimate object, according to some critics. After all, they are required to wear t-shirts that say, “I am a 4G hotspot.” Eric Berger, science blogger at the Houston Chronicle, found this new idea extremely troubling.

“It has to do with digital divides, haves and have nots, and the idea that a fellow human being is of no more use to you than as an Internet jack,” wrote Berger.

Check out video of one of the Homeless Hotspot participants named Clarence. He ended up homeless after Hurricane Katrina. Now he’s on the streets of Austin pitching wi-fi access to SXSW attendees.

If this ends up working out for them in Austin, it’s likely that Homeless Hotspots will end up in San Francisco given our large homeless population. Do you think it’s an effective way to help the homeless get on their feet? Or is it a dehumanizing business model? Let us know what you think about the Homeless Hotspot controversy!


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