updated 6/23/2004 9:30:45 PM ET 2004-06-24T01:30:45

With the flip of a symbolic switch Wednesday, 100 blocks of downtown Spokane got wireless access to the Internet.

City officials and private developers activated what they call the largest deployment of wireless Internet coverage, also known as Wi-Fi, in any urban area in the United States.

“A lot of communities have hot spots,” said Jim West, mayor of the city of 200,000. “We have a hot zone.”

The zone uses new technology that allows Internet signals to be transmitted more than a mile, far beyond the traditional 200- to 300-foot range of Wi-Fi antennas.

City officials put the cost of the project, which requires just a few antennas atop buildings, at between $50,000 and $75,000.

The Wi-Fi zone is divided into a private network for use by the city and an open network for the public. The public users can connect for two hours a day at no charge, and subscription plans are in the works for extended use, said Chad Skidmore, president of OneEighty Networks, the company that provided the networking for the project.

The city helped build the network for its own use. Meter maids will write and print parking tickets on the network using handheld devices. Police officers will use wireless devices to run license plate checks, cutting out the step of calling in numbers to a dispatcher by radio.

Vivato, a San Francisco-based company with a research and development center in Spokane, uses technology similar to that used with cellular telephones to transmit Wi-Fi signals throughout the downtown zone.

Most cities that attempt to give blanket coverage to an area use a point-to-point system that links hundreds of antennas. Spokane accomplishes its coverage using fewer than 10 antennas.

City officials hope the investment will attract high-tech businesses that could take advantage of the wireless zone. Spokane, like many other cities, has lost thousands of high-tech jobs in recent years.

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