Blog Post

Is it helpful to use the homeless as a walking broadband connection?

Stay on Top of Enterprise Technology Trends

Get updates impacting your industry from our GigaOm Research Community
Join the Community!

Among the attendees of South by Southwest in Austin are a smattering of homeless people wearing T-shirts that proclaim “I am a 4G hotspot,” and for a user donation one of them will stand next to you while you check your email or do whatever else you need with the connection. Read Write Web has a good story outlining the “social experiment” by BBH-Labs.

I ran across one of these personal hot spots and, like the folks in the RWW story, couldn’t imagine it was real. So when I ran across these stories this morning, I was struck by a bolt of recognition and disgust. I don’t care if it’s a “social experiment,” as BBH claims, or akin to the sales of street newspapers in cities such as Seattle or San Francisco; it strikes me as exploitive. BBH defends it thus:

Obviously, there’s an insane amount of chatter about this, which although it certainly villianizes us, in many ways is very good for the homeless people we’re trying to help: homelessness is actually a subject being discussed at SXSW and these people are no longer invisible.

It goes on to say that the homeless kept the money they earned, but, either as an effort to help the homeless or as a social experiment, I think it failed. If this was designed to help the homeless, the folks sent out to sell their hot-spot access should have had advance marketing to help attendees understand what was happening. The doubt and disbelief expressed on Twitter and by other attendees would never have happened if this had been a well-designed effort to help. From the original blog on the effort:

This year in Austin, 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. These are homeless individuals in the Case Management program at Front Steps Shelter. They’re carrying MiFi devices. 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), and whatever you give goes directly to the person that just sold you access. We’re believers that providing a digital service will earn these individuals more money than a print commodity.

As a social experiment to render the homeless less invisible, it succeeded, but most of the attention will be directed to the agency that created this program as opposed to the problem of homelessness in Austin. Plus, given the lack of obvious planning and spending from the agency ahead of this “experiment,” it seems more like a stunt, albeit well-intentioned, than like anything that rises to the level of an experiment.

11 Responses to “Is it helpful to use the homeless as a walking broadband connection?”

  1. Liwhu Betiang

    Corporate people who are on the benefiting side will argue that it’s almost a social service for the homeless, but sooner or later we ‘ll be trading our grand-mums and grand-dads in the name of commodification.

  2. Irving Wiseman

    Is it more exploitative than Starbucks selling coffee for a ridiculous multiple of the cost of the drink or many other similar scams from familiar companies? Oh No! That’s OK,that’s capitalism!

  3. Aaron Gilliland

    “Is it helpful to use the homeless as a walking broadband connection?”

    I imagine it depends on how tall they are (for line of sight) and how much battery life they have.

  4. This is wrong. Whatever reasons justified by the agency, this is debasing; treating homeless people like second-class citizens to make a statement over an experimental business model:

    “Look – this is so good, even the homeless can do it!”

    If this isn’t the case, then why not mix up those acting as hotspots? Why not charge students, the retired, alcoholics, or ensured a diverse ethnic background?

    This is as much an experiment as me dressing up as a clown and asking them if they think anything looks funny.

    However, the idea of an open platform to allow people to rent out internet access to those who may need it is a genius idea, and one I support. I just won’t be buying it from THIS company…

  5. Jeff Yablon

    Yeah … I’m sorry, but your activist position on this is just plain … dumb.

    These guys are being paid to do something useful. It is ABSOLUTELY NO DIFFERENT than paying someone to wear a sandwich board or hand out fliers.

    Does it sound creepy because it’s homeless people being “targeted” to make a few dollars? I guess. But … they are the demographic who’s there and available to work, and willing to do the work. Presumably they’re making a reasonable wage. They’re even doing so in an entrepreneurial manner, which with any luck will get a few of them thinking about “what’s next”.

    There’s simply not a real problem here, and anyone proclaiming horror or indignation at the idea is … being disingenuous themselves.