Project would turn homeless into wireless hotspots

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SALT LAKE CITY — It seems like the perfect example of teaching a man to fish: a project that would give the homeless entrepreneurial tools so they can earn money by providing a service for others instead of relying on others.

BBH Labs, a division of global marketing firm BBH, created a plan to turn the homeless into mobile 4G hotspots. It has drawn criticism from some, though, who view it as dehumanizing.

The project, test driven at the South by Southwest convention in Austin last week, recruited homeless individuals to work as WiFi hotspots in areas around the convention center — providing high-speed broadband Internet access to attendees, who often have to fight for a decent connection at the popular tech, film and music convention.

By sending a message to a number found on shirts worn by participants that read, "I am a 4G hotspot," customers received a mobile password via text message. There was no required donation for the service, but project creator BBH Labs recommended a $2 donation for every 15 minutes of Internet access, payable via PayPal or Venmo.

The company said all funds donated were to be paid directly to the project's participants, creating a commission-based system that rewarded participants for interacting with convention-goers and selling the service.

Project organizers said they based the idea on street newspapers, which have been sold in the past by homeless communities to provide a form of income and raise awareness of homelessness.

The digital divide has never hit us over the head with a more blunt display of unselfconscious gall.

–Jon Mitchell

"The issue however, is that like any print publication, these newspapers are under duress from the proliferation of digital media," wrote Saneel Radia, BBH NY's director of innovation, in a blog post. "We're believers that providing a digital service will earn these individuals more money than a print commodity."

The project faced intense criticism online following a post Sunday on ReadWriteWeb that called the project a "little human science experiment."

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

Some on social media called the project "wrong" or "dehumanizing," while others noted conflicting emotions.

"It is a neat idea on a practical level, but also a little dystopian," wrote The New York Times reporter David Gallagher on the newspaper's SXSW blog. "When the infrastructure fails us � we turn human beings into infrastructure?"

Radia defended BBH against the accusations Monday, noting that the company does not stand to gain financially from the project and saying the hotspot program is a "charitable innovation initiative" that organizers "hope to see adopted on a broader scale."

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