This is a project that has a value for business and community far beyond its £15 million sponsorship. It will clearly demonstrate to all exactly what can be achieved right now by the marriage of IT and telecommunications when the tools are in place. Even more importantly it will help Ennis, the IT and communications industries in Ireland and perhaps even our political leaders to discover what else can be done when people come to terms with the enabling technology. It will literally kick start the Information Society in Ireland - given where it is starting, perhaps we should say puck it out.
The surge of publicity in the final stages of the Information Age Town competition nearly overshadowed Telecomís matching and equally enlightened £10 million Information Age Schools initiative. This will provide free Internet connection and high bandwidth ISDN lines to schools, a quota of free internet usage for every school, assistance in providing the necessary PCs and support for a central server to be a specialized information and services resource for schools.
This schools project is a highly practical response to the fact that Ireland lags significantly behind our European partners in the integration of information and communications technologies into first and second level education - despite the success we are having in these industries. If we are to keep up anything like our recent pace of achievement we must back-fill the educational investment that should already be in place. Telecomís £10 million supplement to the Department of Educationís pitiful budget in this area will do much to transform the situation in a relatively short period.
There is a clear self-interest behind Telecom Eireannís benevolence which does not in the least diminish its enlightened nature. These two Information Age projects exemplify the kind of leadership we should expect from our major organizations practical, but forward looking and even visionary and above all generous enough to do things well.
Apart from being the reigning All Ireland hurling Champions in both the senior and minor categories, Clare can boast of many many things. A rich cultural heritage that embraces traditional Irish music and dancing, some of the most breath-taking scenery in Europe and a mecca for tourists, it can now boast that its capital, Ennis, is Irelandís first Information Age Town.
In its attempt to win that much coveted title, and more importantly the £15m investment from Telecom Eireann, Ennis had to contend with worthy competition from Killarney, Castlebar and Kilkenny, each of which will now be the recipient of a £1m investment from Telecom Eireann as a consolation prize.
Ennis will now become a multi-million pound test-bed for the range of new technologies that will transform our lives in the 21st Century and the scale of the proposed investment is as breath-taking as the townís surrounding scenery.
When complete, every home and business in the town will have a computer which will be linked to the internet while every student, form the age of five will receive regular and intensive training in computers and communications tools at schools. Businesses will also benefit from having access to ISDN lines and they will be encouraged and trained in using the Internet to conduct business. Public services like libraries and community centres will also have access to state-of the art technology. In addition every home will be equipped with a range of advanced telephony services such as voice mail and caller identification read-out.
"We intend to blanket Ennis with all the communications tools of the Information Age to see what happens when an entire community becomes wired," says Alfie Cane, chief executive of Telecom Eireann.
"However at the end of the day, users will determine the success or failure of what the Information Age has to offer. And that is why we decided to place communities at the centre of our Information Town project," he says.
With a population of 15,373, 41% of which are under the age of 24 and another 27% is under the age of 44, Ennis is in a unique position to capitalise on the advances in technology. Because of the age of the population, it comes as no surprise to learn that a recent survey of the town highlighted that 48.7% of student homes had computers, of which 19.9% had Internet connections while 7.6% had e-mail addresses.
With the nucleus of a technology-literate population in place, Ennis was well positioned when it came to preparing its submission for the judging panel.
A 15-strong taskforce of representatives of the public, private and voluntary sectors was set up to oversee the development of a comprehensive plan which would transform the town into an Information Age Town. Headed up by T. J. Waters, head of employee relations at Roche Ireland and a member of Ennis Chamber of Commerce, it retained the services of Farrell Grant Sparks to assist it in its the preparation of a submission.
At the heart of the proposal was a five pronged plan to catapult Ennis into the 21st Century.
Central to this was the establishment of Ennis as centre of excellence in the three disciplines of lifelong learning, healthcare and teleworking, each of which has their specific target objectives.
The plan also envisages the development and positioning of Ennis as a centre for telecommunications dependent industries and new media, including multimedia and on-line services while it envisages the positioning of Ennis, both nationally and internationally, as the Irish and European testbed for emerging technologies and services.
In addition, the plan wants to establish as the national centre for raising awareness of the Information Society while it is envisaged that the town will set up its own Internet Service Provider which will facilitate the full range of Internet and on-line services and the creation of a sophisticated, information-rich and service intensive "Ennis System" to which the general public of Ennis have free access.
As the Information Age Town takes shape, Ennis will be linking up with Phoenix, Arizona, its sister town in the USA. Phoenix already has plenty of experience in the use of information technology and has worked in partnership with Motorola in developing a vibrant teleworking network in the Arizona area.
While Ennis is soon to become a model Information Age Town, Telecom Éireann feels that there is also a need to create an even greater awareness of the Information Age and has decided to establish an Information Age Town Alliance which will act as a forum where the ongoing results from the Ennis experiment will be shared with the 46 towns which submitted bids in the first place. In addition Telecom Eireann has also agreed to develop Information Age Community Access Centres in each of the 46 towns. These centres will be equipped with multi-media pcs which will be made available to town residents to access the Internet and other on-line services.
"We know that as a result of this initiative, a momentum has been unleashed in towns and we are committed to building on this in a way that harnesses the huge enthusiasm and knowledge gained so far," says Alfie Kane.
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