Information Age Town

The Irish Times, Thursday, September 25th, 1997

Sir - Your editorial on the victory of Ennis in a digital town competiton sponsored by Telecom Éireann (September 25th) closes rightly with the comment : "The hard work now begins of justifying the title of Information Age Town". For the process of selecting and funding a digital town in Ireland is flawed in two ways.

Firstly, this whole process is an expensive public relations campaign which obscures the real issues for Ireland entering the Information Age. These are the cost of telecommunications in Ireland and the appallingly poor penetration of computing into Irish schools.

In March, The Irish Times reported a recent OECD study which showed that Ireland was the most expensive country in the world from which to access the Internet, the basis of the information age. The charge was over four times that for similar access on the US Canada and Australia. It was four times the cost of access in New Zealand, a country of comparable population and economy.

Even the Government’s own report into the information society cited a study undertaken by the US research company, IDC, which showed Ireland in the lowest ranking in readiness for the information age.

The greatest inhibitor to the widespread use of the Internet is the cost of access, which will delay significantly the use of this critical technology for the advantage of the people of Ireland and its business enterprises. It is important to recognise that all of the countries noted for cost-efficient access have a deregulated market for telecommunications.

Yet Telecom Éireann has made a case, which has been accepted, that Ireland should not move to a competitive telecommunications market until the year 2000, while all other EU countries are required to deregulate their markets by 1998. This will ensure that Ireland has one of the least competitive telecommunication sectors in Europe.

Ireland would have been wiser to move rapidly to a competitive environment, as has Finland, and encourage information-age businesses to locate here. An early step would have been to require Telecom to sell its interest in Cablelink and allow that to compete for all digital data transmission including voice, video and the Internet.

Secondly, the notion of a digital town has been tried without any significant outcome in many countries, including the US, Singapore, Australia and Japan. It does not make any sense to declare a place to be a "digital town" and thread it with fibre optics without the provision of a reasonable information infrastructure. Would it have been useful earlier this century to declare a town as a trial for the automobile and pave a few roads through it without providing access to other towns and cities? No, the automobile became important only when countries were networked with roads and highways.

An information society is dependent on a sophisticated infrastructure that will cost billions of pounds and will be developed by global co-operation. A digital town will not be able to test the concept without education courses online, access to home banking, a government that provides all of its information that provides all of its information and services online, local newsletters and web pages, library access and a wide range of other services- most of which are not available anywhere in the world, let alone to a community in Co. Clare.

The information age is a major opportunity for Ireland to use its educated and creative population to position itself as an advanced economy with the lifestyle and values that it believes to be important. This aim should not be distracted by sideshows, which are most unlikely to yield meaningful answers.

There are two main issues for this country to address most vigorously. First, the provision of an adequate telecommunications infrastructure at the lowest cost in Europe; and second, an educational initiative targeted to schools. This initiative would take teachers off service to train them for the digital age and put in place a strategy to have significant numbers of personal computers in schools with full Internet access. The publicity given to the digital town is a distraction from the main responsibilities of government to enable the transition, to a new and exciting age. - Yours, etc.,

Department of Computer Science,
Trinity College,
Dublin 2.

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