The SXSW festival has a history of weakening WiFi and cellphone connections in Austin, Texas. This year, the ad agency BBH has been attempting to remedy that while also doing some community service, with its “Homeless Hotspots” initiative. As Wired points out, the program has attracted its share of controversy.
“Homeless Hotspots”, which is not affiliated with the official SXSW organization and ends today, has employed 13 homeless people from Austin’s Front Steps Shelter by equipping each with a wireless router. According to BBH, the “Hotspot Managers” have been “strategically positioned” throughout the city, offering festival-goers the opportunity to buy access to the participant’s 4G network from a phone, laptop, or tablet. Each manager keeps his or her earnings in full.
BBH says the program was adapted from the model of street newspapers, which are produced and sold by homeless populations to “stabilize urban street corners through building self-confidence and self-worth,” according to the North American Street Newspaper Association. But, as Wired notes, the “Homeless Hotspots” project requires workers to wear t-shirts that read “I’m a 4G hotspot,” which confuses the goals of the original model.
According to BuzzFeed, the program’s organizer, Saneel Radia, said, ”The worry is that these people are suddenly just hardware, but frankly, I wouldn’t have done this if I didn’t believe otherwise.” BuzzFeed also interviewed one of the participants.
On the BBH website, the company said its longterm goals are more specifically targeted at providing the homeless with a digital writing platform. The company noted, “We are doing this because we believe in the model of street newspapers.”