Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2012/03/14/homless_hotspots_publicity/

4G hobonet stunt was riddled with flaws, doomed to ridicule

Surely we can do better than penniless Wi-Fi porters?

By Anna Leach

Posted in Broadband, 14th March 2012 09:30 GMT

People have criticised the the Homeless Hotspots concept for reducing homeless people to moving bits of network infrastructure, but the idea has some practical flaws too.

Presented as an update to the model that puts homeless people to work selling street newspapers and magazines like The Big Issue, ad agency BBH was at tech and music fest South by Southwest (SXSW), floating the idea of allowing people to purchase access to internet hotspots from homeless vendors.

BBH may be right that the idea of selling street newspapers is near its expiry date – as print media slides towards extinction – but selling Wi-Fi access instead is a poor concept, mainly because the the idea wouldn't be practical anywhere outside of a technology conference.

Would you sit on a kerb in London and work on your laptop?

Homeless Hotspots works at SXSW because it's one big media circus, filled with people who need to blog and upload videos etc on the fly.

The heavy demand on the mobile network is more than normal infrastructure is designed to cope with, and Homeless Hotspots adds a useful temporary mobile infrastructure.

A flashmob at SXSW 2011, credit SXSW

A flashmob at SXSW 2011 Credit: SXSW

But outside of SXSW, could you imagine this working on an average day in London or Birmingham? More than two people sitting on the street in one place in central London would cause a public obstruction.

Five people sitting down with there laptops would block off a whole street. And then who would want to pull out their laptop on a street kerb to sit down and get some work done? It would rain, someone would spill coffee on you, someone else would try and nick your Macbook; it's not practical.

Yes, people might want to check the internet quickly to send an email or check a website, but the people who do want to do that already have smartphones and 3G contracts, and mass gatherings aside, existing mobile networks will work fine. People who want to sit down, pull out their laptop and get something done go to cafes with Wi-Fi and tables.

The telcos have designed their networks to work without the need for homeless people with femtocells.

Would a telco give a homeless person a phone contract?

And even if there were a demand for such a service, there could be some financial obstacles too. The 4G LTE mobile hotspot Elevate device comes with a deal from AT&T costing $69.99 a month on a two-year contract, for 5GB of data month. Extra data costs $10 per 1GB, and there's also an activation fee. It can connect up to five devices. The device can run for five hours before needing to be recharged.

It works out as only $2.33 a day, assuming that it's kept within the 5GB limit, which would make it financially viable. However, the contract commitment is an obstacle to the scheme: it would land the homeless person with a monthly bill for two years. Also, you need a credit rating and a bank account to get a mobile contract, something that many homeless people won't have, not least because they're homeless.

Is giving small amounts of money to homeless people useful?

Homeless charity Homeless Link told El Reg that giving homeless people small amounts of money is not the first or best way to reduce homelessness. Most homeless charities aim to get people off the streets as a priority and then look at accessing other services for them. Commenting on Homeless Hotspots, Homeless Link told us:

I would question whether this initiative would really benefit someone who found themselves on the streets. Individuals who sleep rough can have complex problems and the longer someone stays out, the worse these problems can become. Our members are focused on getting people off the streets and into accommodation.  We need long-term solutions that enable people to overcome their problems and get a home, a job and a better future.

The Big Issue is very specific about how selling magazines is helpful to the vendors of the magazine. And it's the act of selling that is seen as the most valuable part of the process. From their mission page:

The Big Issue offers some of the most excluded people in the country a unique opening to take some control of their lives and earn a legitimate income. Vendors make a personal choice to buy their magazines with their own money, taking charge of their finances and sales whilst developing the skills required to retail to the public.

Walking around in a T-shirt telling the world that you are a 4G hotspot, presenting your body to people with iPads and accepting donations doesn't really involve the same skill set and probably doesn't do much for self-esteem. It would also be more problematic for women, the more vulnerable vendors and those with mental-health problems.

In a response on its website, BBH New York's admen have claimed that at least its initiative has drawn attention to the problem of homelessness. Well, at least that's true.

Is the tech industry really full of callous twats?

SXSW fashion show, credit SXSW

SXSW fashion show 2011. Credit: SXSW

Sure, sitting here criticising an ad agency isn't going to help homeless people either. I suppose what gets to me in particular about the Homeless Hotspots initiative is that it promotes itself as the tech industry stepping up to solve a social problem, but the solution reads like some horrible parody of Silicon Valley: with hipsters quite literally not taking their eyes off their gadget screens to look at the social problems in front of them.

And it doesn't do SXSW any favours either, although a spokesperson for the event said the hobonet stunt was not affiliated with the festival.

But are the roaming Wi-Fi porters the result of some of the world's best minds coming together to discuss great ideas, or a bunch of self-regarding twats with Wi-Fi-only gadgets wanting to upload videos of themselves with other gadgets so that other self-regarding twats can watch them. Answers via Twitter.

The tech industry is going to be about as popular as financial services if we can't see outside our own bubble. Maybe I'm being idealistic about technology, but given the brain power in the industry surely we could do better at tackling some of society's issues. ®