Information Age Town untangles the Web

The Irish Times, March 20th, 1998

As the Ennis project moves into its second phase - deployment to homes - a number of problems are beginning to arise. Money, of course, is at the root of them.

When Ennis won the £15 million Telecom Éireann contract to become Ireland’s Information Age town last September, Ms. Triona McInerney, then development officer with the local Chamber of Commerce, wondered how so much money could be spent on the project.

Six months on, she is involved full-time in the Information Age scheme and has learned how quickly such large sums can be distributed - about half the money in the kitty has been spent. In the meantime, some local people have expressed disappointment at the rate of technology roll-out and have raised questions about gaps between the winning proposal and the emerging reality.

For instance, many children in the town were expecting a PC for Christmas, but the equipment will not get into homes until next month at the earliest.

“We wanted to get this project right from the beginning, so we did a lot of planning in order to lay solid foundations. A lot of background work is required to decide how to deploy a potential 5,500 PCs to homes. It’s not as simple as arriving up at the square in Ennis and giving out boxes, it takes time and people need to be patient,” says Ms. McInerney. So far the Ennis Information Age project has allocated 700 computers to 11 Department of Education schools, two special needs schools, the local youth centre and Dulick training centre for the handicapped.

All the Department of Education schools have now set up their computer laboratories, and those who have still not been equipped are trying to create space for the new PCs, or to customise the PCs for special learning requirements.

Phone density in the town and its environs has been increased from 83 to 93 per cent of the population, with an additional 600 people now hooked up to Telecom. Some 3,000 homes have activated their free voice mailbox including three-way conservation and call-waiting facilities.

As a Christmas goodwill gesture every home had £10 deducted from their phone bill, which - to the surprise of the Ennis Information Age task force - later appeared in Telecom’s £15 million budget breakdown. It has since been agreed the figure of about £50,000 will not come from the £15 million budget, and had only been placed there for accounting purposes.

As the project moves into its second phase - deployment to homes - a number of social and economic issues are beginning to arise.

Each multimedia computer, equipped with Windows 95 and a suite of software packages, is valued at £1,800 but will be available to a maximum of 5,500 homes for £260. It was originally thought that every home would receive a free PC - which is causing some local confusion. According to Ms McInerney a deal has been brokered with local financial institutions to provide special lending arrangements to fund PC purchase. There will also be occasional circumstances where the £260 charge will be waived on the advice of relevant task force members.

The idea behind paying for the PCs is to attach some financial value to the technology, with the money going to a local technology fund for future projects. “Telecom are merely involved in distributing the technology, but it is up to the town to maximise on the resources and leverage them for further investment. Done properly the Telecom money could double in value in terms of long-term investment,” says Mr. John Culligan, Telecom’s project manager for Ennis.

This element of the town controlling the investment and owning the technology is an important feature of making these projects work according to Mr. Brain Mitchell, general manager of Softarc International in Shannon, a company that has been involved with Information Age test bed projects worldwide.

He cites the experience of Kington in Britain which was a test bed for a joint Apple and British Telecom project about seven years ago: “Once the sponsors left the town, the whole thing nearly collapsed. There was no local organisation behind the initiative, so in a sense they didn’t feel they owned it. “The technology needs to have a value that’s driven by the users. In Kington, the town had to rebuild everything from the ashes after the sponsors left.”

Further confusion has arisen over the promise of one year’s free Internet access to every home in Ennis. The offer is simply a waiver of connection rental, not the total cost of time spent online, charged at full local call rates. Recently, the potential costs (and benefits to Telecom) of this service were highlighted in a letter to The Clare Champion by Mr. Donal Crotty, a customer services and call centre consultant with Enlyten.

“Potential revenue (for Telecom) across 4,500 households could exceed £2 million per year,” he said. Mr. Crotty argues if free Internet access cannot be provided, then “there should be a maximum weekly charge or a substantial discount on charges for Internet use”. The issue is governed by EU law, but Mr. Gerry O’Sullivan, head of corporate relations at Telecom Éireann said earlier this week: “We will be seeking to apply for lower Internet access rates in Ennis once it can be established we will not be undermining our competitors. “This would be a significant discount on access, in the region of 30 per cent cheaper perhaps.”

According to Mr. T. J. Waters, chairman of the Information Age town task force, reduced Internet charges were not considered a priority because they may not be equitable, with some people or businesses deriving more value than others.

To be eligible for a PC, candidates will undergo a simple usage test to indicate some degree of computer literacy. The computer will be delivered within 28 days. Those without computing skills will be required to complete and eight-hour training course. It is thought that up to 4,000 people will require training. Local teachers are attending the University of Limerick and Clare Education Centre to learn how to integrate information technology into their curriculum’s. They will in turn pass on their knowledge to a further 150 teachers in Ennis.

“The whole area of information technology integration into the school curriculum needs to be looked at very carefully. It should change the face of learning completely, and it is posing a huge challenge for teachers who have no computer experience,” says Dr. Kyran Kennedy, director of Clare Education Centre for teacher training. He adds that there has been a hidden cost to the new technology for schools in cases where furniture, electrical installations and, in some cases, prefab construction had to be paid for.

Slow dissemination of information has given rise to local frustration and confusion over the strategy being adopted. An intranet was originally promised to facilitate interchange of local information between community groups, but this will not be developed until after the PCs have been distributed to homes, which may take several months.

The Ennis Website has barely been updated since the town won the investment. Mr. Crotty has called for a series of public Information Age meetings, a weekly column in The Clare Champion and a programme on Clare FM providing constant updates on the project’s progress. The task force argues it has kept people up to date via reports in The Clare Champion and on Clare FM, and groups have been established to assess each community body’s requirements including education, business, individual users and the voluntary sector. “A number of community meetings will take place over the next few weeks or months,” says Mr. Waters.

To date, the business and voluntary groups in the community have seen little evidence of the new technology. Teleworking was highlighted by the Disabled People of Clare (DPOC) as vital in creating employment opportunities for disabled people, and recently the Central Remedial Clinic in Dublin opted to move its computer unit to Ennis. But these groups will only be addressed once the home users have received their PCs.

According to Mr. Joe Saunders, and industrial consultant living in Ennis: “People got very excited about this project at submission time, and there were resource implications for some groups in submitting proposals. Now it is quite natural for them to say ‘We bust our asses for this, what are we getting in return’. The town won a £15 million investment, people want to hear about it.”

In addressing the business community’s requirements, the first of two fibre optic rings will be completed by June. The long-term plan is to build a digital park. It is hoped bodies such as Shannon Development and the IDA will assist in leveraging funds, and Mr. Culligan envisages a clustering of Internet companies in the area.

A community access centre will be established in the town next year, featuring a video-conferencing suite and a bank of about 12 PCs that can be hired for use. Public access kiosks will also provide local information, assuming the Website has been updated by then, though there will still be a charge for Internet access.

A separate cashless society experiment is also scheduled for next September. This is a joint venture between Telecom, the Bank of Ireland and AIB to introduce and monitor electronic purse technology. Electronic smart cards, which can be topped up at public pay phones around the town, will be used to pay for car-parking, shopping, and even newspapers.

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