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Turning Homeless Men Into Wi-Fi Hotspots At SXSW Ignites Debate

Wired magazine says it "sounds like something out of a darkly satirical science-fiction dystopia."

BBH Labs, the "skunk works" of marketing firm Bartle Bogle Hegarty, created "Homeless Hotspots" in Austin for the South by Southwest (SXSW) festival that's under way in the Texas capital.

As CNet News writes: "Yep. It is exactly what it sounds like--walking, talking homeless people who provide access to a 4G network in exchange for a donation (BBH Labs suggests $2 per 15 minutes). ... The 13 men who have been chosen to participate in the program are roaming the streets of Austin in T-shirts that say 'I am a 4G hotspot.' The campaign has drawn ire from some who claim it's dehumanizing."

Jon Mitchell at the ReadWriteWeb blog says "the digital divide has never hit us over the head with a more blunt display of unselfconscious gall."

BBH Labs, though, says its "test program" lets the "Hotspot Managers" (the homeless men) keep all the money they earn. It sees the project as an attempt "to modernize the Street Newspaper model employed to support homeless populations."

And one of the homeless men — Mark from Houston — tells ReadWriteWeb that the program is "awesome." It "helps kill the stereotype" that all homeless people don't want to work, he adds. BBH, he says, "is not taking advantage of us."

It's a case of teaching him how to fish, "rather than just giving me a fish," says Mark, because he's learning how to market himself thanks to the program.

(Note: That's just a question, not a scientific survey.)

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Mark Memmott is NPR's supervising senior editor for Standards & Practices. In that role, he's a resource for NPR's journalists – helping them raise the right questions as they do their work and uphold the organization's standards.