Call it a municipal status symbol in the digital age: a city blanketed by a wireless Internet network, accessible at competitive prices throughout the town's homes, cafes, offices and parks.
Tempe, the Phoenix suburb that is home to Arizona State University, is due to have wireless Internet available for all of its 160,000 residents in February, becoming the first city of its size in the United States to have Wi-Fi throughout.
Tempe officials hope that by making high-speed Internet as accessible as water or electricity across its 40 square miles, it will attract more technology and biotech companies — and the young, upwardly mobile employees they bring.
An increasing number of the nation's cities are looking at using Internet access as an economic development tool. Few cities have gotten as far as installing systems, "but most cities are realizing that it may be something that they want to do," said Cheryl Leanza, legislative counsel for the National League of Cities.
Philadelphia is developing a citywide high-speed system with EarthLink Inc. Unlike Philly or Tempe, New Orleans is building a free system, though the network speed will be limited.
The Tempe network is being installed by NeoReach Wireless, a subsidiary of Bethesda, Md.-based MobilePro Corp. Roughly 400 antenna boxes mounted on light poles throughout the city will be used to stitch together the network, to which NeoReach will sell access, primarily through other providers.
The network uses a so-called "mesh" setup, meaning it passes wireless signals from pole to pole and automatically reroutes transmissions if one of the transmitters breaks down.
Speeds will vary depending on the number of users logged into the same access point.
The network is strong enough only to be picked up outdoors or through one wall, meaning those who want service in their businesses or homes will need a box that serves as a signal booster and router.
The city of Tempe gave the company access to its light poles in exchange for use of the network in transmitting data to and from city offices and vehicles, said Karrie Rockwell, a spokeswoman for NeoReach.
Two hours of free access each day also will be available for Internet users on the Arizona State campus or the nearby Mill Avenue retail district, where the network began a year ago as a pilot project and has proven popular.
Robert Jenkins, 50, sits at a coffee house on Mill Avenue a couple of times a week with his laptop, downloading larger files that take too long at home when he uses his mobile phone to access the Internet.
NeoReach will directly sell service to outdoor users for $3.95 per hour or $29.95 per month. The resellers of NeoReach access have not yet announced pricing, but Rockwell said it will be cheaper than DSL or cable Internet access. Cable operator Cox Communications Inc. charges $49.95 per month for customers who don't get Cox phone or TV service. Qwest Communications International Inc. charges $44.99 and $54.99 per month, depending on the speed.
Tempe signed a contract with NeoReach after asking for bids — which prevented it from having to start its own utility and probably quelled potential objections to the city's involvement in a Wi-Fi network.
Elsewhere in the nation, cities have run into heavy resistance from telecom companies, which argue that the free market should dictate the cost and availability of service.
At least 14 states have passed laws limiting municipal Internet service, and other states are expected to consider similar limits, Leanza said. Arizona does not have such a law.