Call it a municipal status symbol in the digital age: A city blanketed in wireless Internet access, available at every home, cafe, office and park.
Tempe will 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 high-speed wireless Internet available throughout.
City officials hope that by making high-speed wireless 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, said Mayor Hugh Hallman.
An increasing number of the nation’s cities are looking at providing high-speed Internet access as an economic development tool or as a way to prevent rural communities from falling behind urban areas, said Cheryl Leanza, legislative counsel for the National League of Cities, a group that represents 18,000 cities.
Few cities have gotten as far as installing systems, ‘‘but most cities are realizing that it may be something that they want to do,’’ she said.
Philadelphia is developing a citywide high-speed system with Earthlink Inc., and New Orleans, still struggling to restore basic infrastructure after Hurricane Katrina, is building its own free system, though the network speed will be limited.
The Tempe system is being funded and installed by Neo-Reach Wireless, a wholly owned 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, which NeoReach will sell access to, primarily through other providers.
The network is made up of so-called ‘‘mesh’’ technology, passing wireless signals from pole to pole. The Wi-Fi system automatically can reroute transmission if one of the transmitters breaks down. Similar to DSL or cable, speeds will vary depending on the number of users logged into the same access point.
Tempe gave the company access to its light poles in exchange for network log-ins so the city can transmit data to and from offices or city vehicles over high-speed connections, said Karrie Rockwell, a spokeswoman for NeoReach.
NeoReach will also continue to allow Internet users on the Arizona State University campus or the nearby Mill Avenue retail district to log in free for two hours a day. The free section of the system was installed about a year ago as a pilot project and has proven popular with local residents.
Robert Jenkins, 50, sits at a coffeehouse 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.
The accessibility of the high-speed service brings people into the area, he said.
‘‘It attracts people, definitely,’’ Jenkins said.
Stuart Jiles, a 27-year-old traveler from Brighton, England, said one of the reasons he decided to stay in Tempe during his month-long American trip was easy access to the Internet.
‘‘It’s one of the reasons we come here to stay,’’ he said. ‘‘As a traveler, Wi-Fi is one of the big things.’’
But those outside the free zone or who need more than two hours a day will still need to pay for service in Tempe.