With all the big things happening in mobile and interactive technology, who would have guessed that the biggest buzz at this year's South by Southwest (SXSW) would be jobs for the homeless? Marketing company BBH Labs captured the attention of the conference with the Homeless Hotspot. In a "charitable experiment," homeless people carrying MiFi wireless devices while wearing "I'M [NAME], A 4G HOTSPOT" t-shirts were deployed outside the SXSW conference to sell Internet access, $2 for 15 minutes.
Some call it exploitative, others ingenious. I call it half-baked.
When I buy Girl Scout cookies, the cookies are secondary. Similarly, when I pay $1 for the weekly edition of "Real Change News" from one of Seattle's homeless, it's not because I'm having trouble finding information and opinions about grass-roots social activism. In both cases, the purchase is motivated by support for the cause rather than a compelling need for the product offered.
By contrast, when I rent Internet access, it's a purchase based on real wants and needs with no immediate or viable alternatives.
If the wireless carriers were able to maintain sufficient levels of investment in telecom infrastructure, perhaps I wouldn't have as much trouble getting a strong signal on my mobile phone in a crowd. Or, if municipalities did a better job at bathing our cities and towns in glorious and free WiFi, we'd all be able to take advantage of fast, inexpensive networks without having to connect to a cellular tower. These are problems to be solved by additional investment in wireless infrastructure and forceful advocacy of open and public Internet access by municipalities, not through stopgap solutions involving a transient workforce.
The key purchase criteria for Internet access include security, convenience, and reliability, as well as price. I need to trust that the brand I'm using as a hotspot has implemented basic security protocols on its routers. I want as few barriers to access as possible, leading to a fast connection that won't drop unexpectedly. Finally, I want a good price, preferably free. Unfortunately, I don't see how Homeless Hotspots adequately satisfies these purchase criteria.
The biggest problem with the idea would be security exploits made possible through this kind of network. Suppose an adversary "borrows" the MiFi router and then hacks the password or swaps out the device for a compromised replacement. The adversary could then eavesdrop on your message traffic. Any network based on routers carried or managed by individuals could be subject to this type of attack. While it's possible for an insider or intruder to hack a Starbucks router, I'd rather take my chances with the baristas.
There's also the practical matter of whether you can count on having access at a certain location before you leave home, or whether your hotspot provider wouldn't decide to jump on a bus to escape the cold rather than sit around waiting for you to finish your 15-minute session. These are quality-of-service questions that don't come up when you're supporting a cause financially, but are paramount when you're buying something that you use for business.
Technology holds great promise for homeless people and their families. For example, we might imagine mobile social networks that connect people in need to available social services, whether medical treatment, mental health care, job training, or job opportunities. Technology can also support greater transparency in charitable giving, such that we can have better visibility into the outcomes from our contributions and therefore channel funds more effectively.
While the BBH Labs initiative may have done the country a service by starting a broader conversation about homelessness, I don't see Homeless Hotspots as an imitation-worthy business model. In general, I'd rather give a charitable contribution with no strings attached than depend upon a charity for a service or product that I rely upon.
In any event, based on the inherent limitations of the deployment model compounded by the fast-moving nature of wireless technology, I wouldn't count on seeing growth of the "Squee-G" wireless network anytime soon.