Homeless Paid to Be 'Walking Wireless Hotspots'

8:57 PM, Mar 13, 2012   |    comments
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By Brett Molina, USA TODAY

Visitors of the South by Southwest festival in Austin have found an interesting outlet for access to high-speed Internet connections: the homeless.

A test program called Homeless Hotspots -- described as a "charitable experiment" by creators BBH Labs -- takes members of Austin's homeless population and equips them with 4G MiFi devices.

Wearing T-shirts that read "I'm (Name). I'm a 4G Hotspot," they collect donations from users for the connection. The official website for Homeless Hotspots suggests $2 for every 15 minutes, but BBH's Saneel Radia says in a blog post users can pay as much as they want.

"All proceeds paid for access go directly to the person selling you access," reads a statement on the Homeless Hotspots website. "This is a form of income for them."

Not everyone is viewing the deeds of BBH as charitable. Among the most notable criticisms:

Wired magazine's Tim Carmody: "It sounds like something out of a darkly satirical science-fiction dystopia. But it's absolutely real - and a completely problematic treatment of a problem that otherwise probably wouldn't be mentioned in any of the panels at South by Southwest Interactive."

Jon Mitchell of ReadWriteWeb: "The digital divide has never hit us over the head with a more blunt display of unselfconscious gall."

Radia has since updated his post responding to the controversy, saying BBH is receiving "no commercial benefit" from the program.

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

This isn't BBH's first endeavor involving the homeless. They also created Unheard in New York, a program that provided four homeless residents in New York City with a cellphone, unlimited text messages and a Twitter account to recount their daily lives.

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