Ennis faces revolution

Justin Comiskey talks to some of the key players in the Information Age project in Clare and asks them how it will affect the business community and the local people

"OUR key objective is to help kick-start the journey towards the Information Age in Ireland. We have to be ready for the future now, and to achieve this state of readiness, we believe that a live environment will provide a unique showplace for people to see the future happening right now. Ireland’s Information Age town will act as a test-bed for the range of new technologies and business that will transform all our lives in the 21st century."

So said Alfie Kane, chief executive of Telecom Éireann, shortly before Ennis was announced as the winner of the Information Age town competition. But what will happen when the £15 million worth of high tech digital equipment Telecom Éireann will install in Ennis is in place? How will people use it? What effect will it have on our lives?

The simple answer to these questions is that nobody knows for sure. Alfie Kane says that one aspect of the Information Age town project is to show people what can be done when the tools - personal computers, digital voicemail phones, ISDN lines, smart cards, access to the Internet, a local intranet and the like - are in place. Towards this end, Telecom plans to be involved in the training of local people in how to use all the new technology. The other aspect of the project is to see what, when people come to terms with all this enabling technology, they use it for.

One thing’s for sure, however, there will be no shortage of people analysing - from a variety of different angles - what services the people of Ennis are going to be put under the microscope.

Telecom Éireann, for example, will be closely analysing the project to see how future customers behave and, as a result, should gather some very valuable market information. Academics from Dublin City University will be drafted in to analyse the socio-economic impact of how people from many different backgrounds adapt to the technology and use it to improve their lives.

Because of its young age profile - 27 per cent of its population are under 25 and around three-quarters of the population are under 45 - Ennis is well-placed to act as a guinea-pig for this Information Age project.

"We have," says TJ Waters, president of Ennis Chamber of Commerce, "a very young population and are one of the fastest growing towns in the State. The possibilities offered by the arrival of all this technology in Ennis are boundless.

"When businesses in the town are hooked up to the Internet and our intranet - in addition to being wired for ISDN - this will provide a major impetus to the local economy. We can present Clare and all its commercial and tourism capabilities to the world and to the rest of the State. We may also be able to attract far wider investment in various industries that require this technology."

Asked about the likely effect all this technology will have on the people of Ennis, Gerry O’Sullivan, head of corporate relations at Telecom Éireann, said: "We will have to wait and see how it will affect them. However, having every home hooked up to the Internet and a local intranet where they will be able to access both public and private sector services, could revolutionise how people go about their business.

"We will be giving out information about what is happening in the project on a regular basis and the lessons we learn should be beneficial for society in general. I imagine that we will start to see some roll models evolving from the Ennis project very quickly and, in a year or so, we will see these being adopted around the State.

"But I find it difficult to predict some of the project’s possible effect’s. However, when we bring ISDN-access into the bulk of the local business sector, this should help them greatly. In particular, the SME sector stands to gain a lot as we help them to embrace technology in a very cost-effective manner."

TJ Waters is very excited about the possible benefits the new technology will bring to Ennis. He mentions that he heard from a lady living near Loop Head who recently sold her first horse on the Internet. "This is just one example of how the Internet can be used to generate business," he says, "and there is already a strong desire among the business community in the rest of the county to have this technology rolled out further."

Alfie Kane says: "It is clear that the information Age is set to have a significant impact on economic and social life in this State and it is imperative that we move quickly to understand and optimise the potential benefits for this State. In particular, we need to position ourselves to maximise job creation potential."

When businesses in Ennis are wired to the world and to themselves via high-speed ISDN lines, we will surely begin to see some of the "job creation potential" the new technology offers in action. Already, for example, some of the organisers for the Ennis Information Age town project claim to have secured 200 jobs because of the technology shortly to be available in the town.