Thanks to the advent of smartphones, tablets, laptops and the other countless web-connected gadgets, it's pretty much guaranteed that anytime you have a large gathering of people in one place, the cell phone and Wi-Fi networks are going to take a beating. Though many event organizers will make every effort to bolster the networks in order to cope with the extra demand, they're not always successful. This year, at SXSW in Austin, Texas, one marketing company tried to help out those in need of a Wi-Fi connection in a very unconventional way: They turned homeless people into Wi-Fi hotspots.
BBH Labs, a branch of marketing agency BBH, ran an experiment over the weekend called the 'Homeless Hotspots' project. The company equipped 13 volunteers from a local homeless with mobile hotspots and gave them t-shirts with "I'm [name], a 4G hotspot," on the front. The volunteers were then sent off to offer WiFi access to people in exchange for a suggested donation of $2 for 15 minutes.
BBH gave the volunteers an upfront payment of $20 per day for their work, with a minimum of $50 per day being promised and also allowed them to keep any donations they received. However, the stunt has caused some controversy at SXSW and some have criticized BBH's scheme. Many people on Twitter have labeled it degrading or exploitative. In response to the negative feedback, BBH says the idea is built on the practice of homeless people selling newspapers for a dollar on the street and that they're trying to raise awareness for the homeless.
"We saw it as a means to raise awareness by giving homeless people a way to engage with mainstream society and talk to people," BBH told the New York Times. "The hot spot is a way for them to tell their story."
Additionally, the volunteers involved seemed happy to take part. One Dusty White told the Huffington Post that the the chance to talk to SXSW attendees and earn money made him feel proud. "I felt like it was a positive thing," he said. "They could have done this with anyone." Another participant, Clarence Jones, said that he was happy to work for pay. "Everyone thinks I'm getting the rough end of the stick, but I don't feel that," NYT quotes Jones as saying. "I love talking to people and it’s a job. An honest day of work and pay."
The experiment was supposed to run from Friday through to Monday but rain meant that the volunteers were only fulfilling their duties as roaming hotspots through Sunday and Monday. However, the website homelesshotspots.org still allows people to donate to the volunteers involved in the project.