The annual South by Southwest conference in Austin, Texas is generating a bit more buzz than usual this year, but rather than the latest social media phenomenon getting headlines, it's a controversial campaign called Homeless Hotspots.

The initiative has homeless people offering conference attendees wireless internet access while they are out and about.

The participants are stationed throughout the neighbourhood where the conference is taking place. They wear t-shirts that say "I'm _____, a 4G hotspot."

Users can get 4G connectivity in exchange for a donation made through a PayPal account, with all money going to the individual seller, says the campaign's website.

The site says the project mimics and updates programs that see homeless people sell newspapers on the streets, while meeting conference-goers demands for better connectivity on the go.

The project was dreamed up by marketing firm BBH New York and Front Steps, a local advocacy group for the homeless.

"Our hope is to create a modern version of this successful model, offering homeless individuals an opportunity to sell a digital service instead of a material commodity," the site says.

Despite the campaign's claims of altruism, social media sites exploded with criticism from users.

"As if the homeless aren't dehumanized enough, they are now being used as Wi-Fi hotspots at South by Southwest," journalist Saleem Khan tweeted.

"This seems to be going a bit too far, do you think?" tweeted William R. Helms.

Other Twitter users wondered if the campaign was real, while a few commended BBH for generating so much publicity.

Another user, blogger Surat Lozowick, called the outrage over the campaign "overblown."

"No one is doing anything they don't want to do," he tweeted.

Some of the participants are profiled on the campaign's website. Clarence, for example, is from New Orleans, and lost his home during Hurricane Katrina. Dusty, from Corpus Christi, says he is eager to find work after his unemployment benefits ran out. And Jeffrey has been homeless since his treatment ended for a traumatic brain injury.

"(Jeffrey) wants people to understand that homelessness is sometimes out of a person's control and that he just needs a chance," reads his short bio.

In an email, Front Steps spokesperson Mitchell Gibbs told BuzzFeed that the agency stands by the campaign.

"I think the fit [with Front Steps] is in the empowerment, education, and encouragement of the client to earn an income while saving the majority of those earnings with a goal of moving to safe and stable housing," Gibbs said.