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Alecia Miller is the president of the Tucson Wi-Fi Alliance. The group--including the city, the Tucson-Pima Public Library, the University of Arizona, Cisco Systems, Simply Bits, Lewis and Roca, Clifton Gunderson and Finley Distributing Company--has come together during the last 28 months to bring free wireless Internet downtown, with the epicenter being Jacome Plaza (outside the downtown library) and El Presidio Park. The switch will be flipped on Monday, May 23 (assuming, of course, everything goes according to plan). And that's just the start; Miller has plans for the alliance beyond downtown. Miller, who moved to Tucson in September 2001, has a paying gig, as president of The Cumberland Group.

Explain to me your passion for wi-fi.

I wanted to do something super wonderful for Tucson, to give something back to the city that was so welcoming to me. When I found out about wi-fi, it fed my imagination, and I thought about the future. Wouldn't it be great if, say, an attorney could walk out of his office, sit in a park and look up a case or get information about a case? An employee at an office downtown could go and grab a sandwich, sit down at El Presidio Park and work. ... This helps (fight) the erosion of education by being a useful tool (for people to learn).

How did you get everyone to donate to make this happen?

I just sat down, 1-on-1, and said, "This is what I'd like to do." By the time I explained the potential ... I (explained we could start) a nonprofit, and level the playing field, (bridge) the digital divide. We can work with different neighborhoods, so the neighborhoods can help themselves. ... If they have Internet access, they learn. They can retrain for jobs. Entrepreneurs can launch businesses. Often, you can get computers at a low cost, but connectivity is the problem. ... They key word is "convergence." They're making devices that can talk to each other, but they need a highway to talk, and that (highway) will be high-speed broadband providing access to the Internet. I am extremely passionate because it's very positive, and I've actually found like-minded people. You asked how I convinced everyone to donate, and it's because I found people with the same passions for this city.

What are your goals for the future?

I'd like to be able to provide connectivity to underprivileged areas. I want to work with the neighborhood associations, and just start linking on down. I'd love to start in Barrio Hollywood and go into different neighborhoods all the way to the southside. (The neighborhoods) are going to have to contribute and work to put this together. But it's going to be doable for them. I am sure at some point, the big boys (Internet service companies) will want to give me problems, but I have four Lewis and Roca attorneys working pro-bono for the Tucson Wi-Fi Alliance.

Interesting.

It's been a major group effort. I feel like I've been the catalyst, like the program manager, but it's such a group effort. It's about all of us doing this for Tucson. It's about everyone coming together to do something for their community.

Some folks say that this could harm businesses that are currently offering wi-fi, but charging for it. Isn't that true?

This is being done in public spaces, community spaces, providing in the public space for the public.

What if there are technical problems?

If it goes out, it goes out. We're giving something away for free. There's a server, and if we find someone hogging the bandwith, or doing something inappropriate, we can kick (him or her) off. As with everything that's free, we don't want people to be piggish. We want people to use it, but other people will be using it, too. We're just giving it away for free, but we're not saying we're responsible for it always being up. You can't call up customer service.

But somebody has to maintain it, right? That's another thing critics say about free wi-fi zones, is that they won't be reliable.

Simply Bits is going to take care of the system and the network, reasonably. Let's face it: If there's a job they're being paid for, and they have to chose between it and what's free, they're going to choose the "x" amount of dollars. Everything's within reason.

OK.

Society is so segmented. If you have Internet at home, you're alone, typing away at your computer. But this is bringing people into outdoor spaces. Then there are people (outside) in the community, and there's interaction. It brings back a sense of what community is all about. That's what I hope. That's a theory of mine.

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