Preparing Ireland for the coming age

Interview: Alfie Kane

Look at the number of jobs which are createed out of the car industry. You don't have to be able to manufacture a car to find jobs out of that industry. It is the same with information

So much has been written about developments in information technology in recent years. The phrase, information age has become one of the most common buzz words. But what exactly will the information age mean to people's lives and how can Ireland make the most the opportunities that it presents? These are just some of the questions that Telecom Eireann chief executive, believes that while Telecom has an obvious responsibility to provide Ireland's population with quality telecommunications services at the best price, it also has an obligation to do everything it can to nurture the development of the information age.

This was one of the reasons that TE should host a unique competition one which would help to find the most appropriate town in Ireland to act as the leader and the experiment ground for bringing this country fully into the so-called information age. With four towns short listed, the selection process is almost complete. According to Kane the response and level of enthusiasm among the competing towns has been staggering.

"In any competition you might expect that up to 80 per cent of the applications are not up to standard you are looking for. In this competition, easily 100 per cent of the entries were well above the kind of professional standard we were hoping for," he said.

In other countries telecommunications or companies have chosen certain towns for pilot projects relating to new information services they have developed. But never before has a major competition been held, with all of the technology services available up for grabs. Telecom Eireann is spending up to 15m on this project as a means of advancing Ireland's progress towards the information age. But while it is a competition, it is also an experiment. Kane is quick to point out that by giving this kind of backing to a town and its ideas for job creation, some things will work out and others may fail. But that will be part of the learning process.

As to the details of the impact it will have on people's lives, nobody knows for certain just what will happen.

"I think it has been an important part of this process to get the communities themselves behind the project, so we will do this or that, but that it is a partnership from which we will both benefit and learn something. " he said. Rather than see it as a winner and losers scenario, Kane has plans to find ways of conducting other pilot projects in some of the towns which do not win, and also cascading out the successful ideas and projects from the winning town across the country.

The winning town will be afforded certain privileges that will provide it with unique opportunities. Almost every home and business in the winning town will be kitted out with a personal computer with e-mail and internet access for free. According to Kane, not every home will be given a free computer, because that would not engender an appreciation or encourage people to use it to their full advantage. But Telecom, in conjunction with the Chamber of Commerce, and in partnership with hardware and software providers, will enable people to have a computer in their home at a fraction of the normal commercial cost.

Every home and business will have full interactive voice mail services. Kane believes that for many people there are barriers, whether they be psychological or cultural, associated with using e-mail or internet services, which are not there when it comes to using something as simple as an answering machine. For example, a football coach will be able to leave the same message on the answering machine of all of his team in minutes. A school principal would be able to leave a standard message to all of the Leaving Cert students, saying here are your exam results. Using full interactive voice mailing, the unique message with each student's own results could then be given out. This can be done using a computer function which would call up the individual's results and the computer would then be able to read them out as a message on the phone line.

The winning town will also have its own intranet, making it easier for people in the town to communicate with each other through e-mail. "We don't have to have a message going through the US, as is the case now, in order for it to be sent to someone else in the town", he said.

Telecom will invest further in putting in ISDN lines into the town. All public services will including libraries, social welfare will be transacted using state of the art technology. Some towns internationally have been used on an experimental basis to operate as cashless towns, where as many transactions are done using e-mail and internet facilities and smart cards, rather than cash. This would be an option for the winning town to explore.

Kane is anxious to point out that Telecom Eireann wants to sit down and explore ideas in partnership. As for the internet itself, Kane realises fully that in order to really get the benefit of the technology, people will have to be shown how to use it. Rather than throw them in the deep end, he has worked out a strategy for approaching the issue of educating people about the technology. "There will need to be an effective awareness programme to let people know what is available. To a certain extent in a lot of the towns that has already happened. People are so interested in the project that they are fully aware of it," he said.

One aspect of this would be to have an information centre open in the town, with full PC and internet facilities where people can come in off the street and learn how to use them. A couple of towns have already set up these kinds of centres. The awareness stage would be followed up with basic information about how to use the technology. This could be done on local radio, giving talks or distributing literature on it.

Then comes the training stage, where people can be shown in small groups how to use the technology. The final stage is the developmental or application stage, where people having learned how to use the technology that is available, will begin to develop ideas as to what they can do with it, either to enhance the quality of their own lives or to generate jobs.

Having all of this technology and training available in one town, will inevitably make it attractive for inward investment. The winning town could be a much sought-after location for foreign firms to locate. But Kane believes other opportunities will arise also. "I would be disappointed if we don't develop as many new indigenous jobs through this process as we manage to get through inward investment," he said. Kane is a strong advocate of our international successes in attracting call centres here, the development of software and the manufacture of hardware in Ireland. But when it comes to the information age he believes there are niches which Ireland can fill and effectively hoover up international information jobs. The kind of jobs he has in mind are support service jobs for the global information industry.

He is wary of the notion that we might think we can "out Microsoft Microsoft, or out IBM the IBMs" of this world. "Look at the number of jobs which are created out of the car industry. You don't have to be able to manufacture a car to find jobs out of that industry. It is the same with information," he said.

If properly harnessed, Ireland could create a whole range of jobs from developing web sites by for example updating the information for some of the major global web sites. Without having to make the major capitol investments that corporations such as Microsoft have to make, Ireland could still create literally thousands of jobs from the internet. Kane believes that is feasible to make Ireland a major internet centre. The Information Age Town competition is a step in that direction.