Human hotspots for hire

BLOGGER: JEFF BARAK

Perhaps the starkest example of the digital divide cropped up at this week’s SXSW (South by Southwest) technology conference in Austin, Texas, where a marketing agency hired members of the local homeless population to walk around carrying mobile Wi-Fi devices, offering conferencegoers Internet access in exchange for donations.

Yes, you read it right: homeless people were hired to become 4G hotspots at one of the world’s leading geekfests.

In return for $20 a day, and whatever customers donated in exchange for the wireless service, these people wandered around the conference, making sure the tablet-toting, smartphone-surfing attendees never lacked an Internet connection. As the New York Times reported, many people felt turning down-and-out people into wireless towers “was exploitative and discomforting”, but as one of the human hotspots commented, “I love talking to people and it’s a job. An honest day of work and pay.”

Leaving aside the tastefulness of this particular marketing initiative, it does highlight the growing gap between those who are connected and those who aren’t. While there are 6 billion mobile connections (not bad for a world population of 7 billion), “only” 1.3 billion of these are connections  to mobile broadband, meaning that the vast majority of the world’s population is cut off from some of the most exciting developments in today’s world.

Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt made this one of his main themes at last month’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, warning of the creation of a “digital caste system,” and even arguing that with greater Internet access, “human rights abuses and suffering under dictatorial regimes could lessen.”

But for this to happen, the price of smartphones has to drop considerably. As Santiago Fernandez Velbuena, CEO of Telefonica Latin America, said in Barcelona, the price of a smartphone has to drop below the $100 level for mobile broadband to really take off in emerging markets.

And of course, once this happens, service providers will need to have new and efficient networks in place to cope with the increased demand for data – whatever the rights and wrongs of homeless, human hotspots, they’re certainly not a long-term solution to the capacity crunch.

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