En clair in County Clare

The Irish Times, Wednesday, January 21st, 1998

Ennis was selected as Ireland’s ‘Information Age Town’, and Telecom Éireann is investing some £15 million in state-of-the-art technology in the town. John Lattimore reports on a town transformed.

The small town of Ennis in the Irish Republic is at the heart of a unique experiment in telecommunications, one in which all the strands of established and emergent technologies will be tested for their social, economic, and personal potential. The results of this experiment will be studied intensely over the coming few years, and will serve as a template for Telecom Éireann’s strategy in ensuring this State, as a whole, is not left behind in the telecommunications revolution.

Telecom will now ensure that the 17 per cent of Ennis homes not already equipped with a telephone will be connected free of charge. Also, every home will have digital voicemail; a majority of homes hopefully 90 percent or more due to heavy cost of subsidisation) will have a personal computer with Internet access; every business will have an ISDN link and high speed Internet access; a full range of public services will be provided online; and “smartcard” technology is to be deployed, particularly to facilitate cashless transactions in the financial services area.

What sets Ennis apart from similar experiments in other parts of the world is the comprehensiveness with which it will approach the Information Age technology. Other countries have assessed the potential of individual services, such as the “Smartcard” scheme now being tested by France Telecom. But to have all the new technologies brought together in a single scheme has never been tried before, and this makes Ennis unique, says Telecom Éireann chief executive, Alfie Kane.

Having established its credentials as an Information Age test bed, Ennis is now about to make real its plans and aspirations. Triona McInerney, co-ordinator of the town’s Information Age Task Force, says the likelihood is that training will form a big part of the campaign to promote usage of the various technologies that will come on stream. There is little point in forcing technology on the local population, nor intimidating them with wave upon wave of new services and gadgets that they don’t understand, she says.

Thus, while the town’s success has already prompted a spate of offers from hardware and software manufacturers, the Task Force will be very discerning indeed in its ultimate choice of services and equipment. The community effort that will be aimed at both households and businesses, teaching each to exploit the new technologies, says McInerney.

Retailers, for instance, will be encouraged to use the Ennis net as an advertising medium, and to use their PC’s to increase their access to product information from their suppliers, and to adopt information from their suppliers, and to adopt up-to-date business methods such as just-in-time stock control, business banking, and distance learning. In terms of local administration, both the net and voicemail will provide perfect platforms for disseminating public service information; in the longer term developing as a medium through which certain services can be delivered.

Some private sector services will also be suited to electronic delivery media. Financial services are an obvious case in point, and the response to Ennis’ win from the banks and others has been tremendous, McInerney says, although no decisions have yet been taken on which financial institutions will be taken on board. This new-found status as an Information Age town will obviously enhance the lives of the people working and living there, but there may be some other, more tangible, benefits in the form of new industry and employment.

Although not regarded as a centre of high technology manufacturing, Ennis has recently received a number of enquiries from potential projects, and in some cases the promoters’ awareness and interest were a direct result of the town’s success. The competition to find Ireland’s first Information Age Town was one that produced no losers, however, as Telecom Éireann increased its original £15 million commitment to the project by a further £5 million. So pleased was the company with the quality and depth of the response from all involved that it earmarked a further £1 million for each of the three runners up, and extra funds to finance further development in the remaining 42 participating towns.

The runners up will devote their respective £1 million support grants to such initiatives as to subvert the cost of ISDN lines for local businesses, installing portable training units in local schools to enhance children’s keyboard skills, upgrade their websites, and provide incentives that will attract high technology industrial projects.

The remaining 42 towns are also to benefit more than they originally believed possible. Telecom Éireann will finance the equipping of a Community Access Centre, or Cyber Café, in each town, which will then run on a commercial or semi-commercial basis. In addition, a specially constructed intranet connecting all 46 towns in the competition will form a vital part of the “Information Town Alliance” being established by Telecom Éireann, which will act as a forum for the exchange of ideas, information, and experience, and allow the towns to act in concert to pursue common objectives, such as securing EU funding or devising common standards in such areas as multimedia delivery of community services.

A team from Dublin City University will closely monitor what happens in Ennis and the other 45 towns, and the data gathered incorporated into Telecom Éireann’s long-term plan to enable the whole of Ireland adapt to the Information Age , embrace its beneficent technology, and take its proper place in the real and virtual worlds of the new millennium. Uniquely, the data gathered will be incorporated into Telecom Éireann’s long-term plan to enable the whole of Ireland adapt to the Information Age, embrace its beneficent technology, and take its proper place in the real and virtual worlds of the new millennium.

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