Unexpected SXSW Takeaway: Human Wireless Hotspots

Marketing firm temporarily turns Austin, Texas homeless population into mobile 4G hotspots during the South by Southwest (SxSW) Interactive event this weekend.

The ongoing South By South West conference, better known as SXSW, is an innovation hub that brings startup companies from across the US to the media spotlight while other more established companies jostle for PR. Typically, nifty innovations are usually what catch the attention of the media and cause a buzz but not so this year. This year, something totally different is causing a stir in the area; human wireless hotspots.

One company, BBH Labs, has caused an emotional uproar with their human wireless hotspots that uses homeless people in the city as masts. The company, working together with a local charity, decided to conscript a number of homeless people in the area and gave them branded T-Shirts, a wireless hub and an opportunity to make some cash.

This is how it works: When you approach one of these “human masts”, you have the liberty of choosing to connect to their wireless connection by texting to a certain number. On connection, you are encouraged to donate some money, not pay, the homeless person for the Internet at a suggested rate of $2 per hour.

This sees the homeless person earning some money while at the same time performing some serious PR for the company sponsoring the Internet. This has, however, elicited more condemnation than praise as attendants to the conference feel this is a kin to using a mascot animal in a zoo or something like that and that this is unethical and unfair exploitation of a vulnerable group of persons.

Now, I don’t know how this figures because isn’t it the same as hiring a guy to put on a monkey suit and act as a mascot for your business? Or better yet, isn’t it at least great that the guys peddling the Internet have a decent opportunity to make some money? Well, the jury is still out on that one. What do you think, was BBH Labs wrong to use the homeless people in Austin Texas as a publicity stunt in this way?

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