SXSWi Homeless Hotspots: Where’s the Value of Turning Humans Into Walking WiFi Hotspots?

The annual SXSW Interactive (South by Southwest) event is at its last day today in Austin, Texas (the music and film portions of the festival will continue through the week), and one of the more controversial highlights of the event is the “Homeless Hotspots” experiment that essentially provides mobile data-based roaming hotspots through homeless individuals. With supposedly charitable organizations backing the activity, is it an innovative way of spreading the wealth, or is it just another way of taking advantage of the poor and needy?

The Homeless Hotspots project at SWSX Interactive got a lot of flak for the apparent opportunism of the marketing companies involved. But is the charitable experiment sustainable, and will it actually spark a change in the beneficiaries' lives?

Homeless Hotspots is supposedly a charitable experiment launched by BBH Labs, a skunkworks group under marketing firm Bartle Bogle Hegarty in Austin. The company has partnered with Front Steps Shelter in equipping homeless individuals with mobile WiFi routers. These folks then act as mobile pay-per-use hotspots for SXSWi attendees.

Participants wear T-shirts that advertise the service. Attendees with notebooks, netbooks, tablets or smartphones can then get online using the mobile WiFi routers for a small donation.


Users can either pay in cash or through PayPal. Cash proceeds directly go to the homeless person, while PayPal payments are remitted every two weeks. It essentially involves a tipping system, although the recommended tip is US$ 2 per 15 minutes of WiFi use.

Good idea?

Social experiments like Homeless Hotspots try to bridge the gap between the moneyed gadget user with needy folks who might need the extra money. The altruistic goal here is to help educate homeless people on the benefits of social media literacy, and get them to earn in the process.

However, critics say this is not really sustainable. The project got a lot of flak for essentially commoditizing the homeless individual. For one, the most benefit goes to the marketing firm that’s organizing the project. Cause campaigns can easily be misconstrued as marketing gimmicks, especially if the buzz generated focuses more on the viral success of the campaign rather than how much the lives of the stakeholders have improved.

Wired says humans are being turned into platforms to be optimized and validated, and marketing firms are likely to use these as case studies or pitches for subsequent advertising campaigns. What of the homeless guys? They get their few dollars’ worth for being “walking billboards.” But what happens next?

Still, we can probably give these folks the benefit of the doubt. The project might scale, after all, and telcos could equip not only the homeless, but small, fledgling businesses, with mobile WiFi routers that can be used for a few cents or dollars a pop.

Isn’t Mobile Data Cheaper?

I wonder if this would be effective in Asian countries, though. How much would you pay for 15 minutes of access to a MiFi router? In the Philippines, 15 minutes of 3G or HSDPA access through Globe’s mobile network costs PhP 5 (or 12 US cents). One could also register for 24-hour browsing for PhP 50 (or US$ 1.2).

It doesn’t make sense to pay 2 US dollars for a quarter hour access, especially if the equivalent amount can already buy you prepaid credits instead, and if half the amount can get you 24-hour mobile browsing.

But, if you’ll be helping a homeless person get through the day with what can be considered loose change, then why not? If you’re helping a homeless person become a productive member of society by offering a “service,” then it could help spark change in their lives. It could help get street kids off drugs, or drunkards off the bottle.

I’d be glad to shell out PhP 20 (about 50 US cents) for 15 minutes of access if I knew it would help earn a homeless person a living.

Now arguably, the only question here — at least in some markets — is whether an unsupervised beneficiary won’t just run off and resell the MiFi device for their retail price, which can usually fetch about US$ 100 worth here in Manila. Or worse, given the reputation of mobile phone snatchers in urban areas here, you might not necessarily want to whip out your smartphone along a busy sidewalk to browse.

I think is an interesting idea, mind you. It’s just a question of motives and sustainability.