Taking a place in the real and virtual worlds of the new millenium

John Lattimore considers the Telecom Éireann-sponsored Information Age Town competition, profiles the winning entry and assesses where the concept goes from here.

In an advertising campaign currently running on British television, a little girl constantly questions why we, as adults, structure our lives so as to put ourselves and our physical environment under constant stress as we commute daily to our city centres or fly thousands of miles to conduct a two-hour business meeting. Why indeed?

Having two commuter rush hours each day never made much sense anyway, but why continue with this outdated economic model when the telecommunications industry is presenting us with viable alternatives? All that’s needed is a working model to show us the way and, courtesy of Telecom Éireann a small town in the Co Clare is about to fill the requirement.

Ennis was selected as the State’s Information Age Town last month, following an open competition run by Telecom Éireann and involving community groups from 46 entrants nationwide. At stake was a £15 million investment by Telecom Éireann in providing state-of-the-art communications technology in every home and business in the selected town, bringing it rapidly into an Information Age where many of the functions now requiring physical contact and personal travel can be conducted via the telephone using voicemail or personal computers.

Thus, Telecom Éireann will 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 per cent or more - 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 on-line. While "smart card" technology is to be deployed, particularly to facilitate cashless transactions in the financial services area.

In the case of personal computers, these will not be provided free - they might not otherwise be appreciated - but will be made available at just a fraction of the normal retail cost, and even that amount will be provided where necessary by way of a soft loan from local credit unions.

What sets Ennis apart from other such 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 quite unique, says Telecom Éireann chief executive, Alfie Kane.

A number of broad criteria were set for choosing the Information Age Town, including the candidates’ suitability as a national showcase for the emergent telecommunications technologies, the potential of each for exploiting these technologies, and the town’s track record in business and community development.

The 46 towns that made submissions to Telecom Éireann all possessed these qualities in one degree or other, but common to all was an enthusiasm and commitment for the project at all levels.

Indeed, it was Ennis’s success in harnessing this enthusiasm to maximum effect that gave it the edge over the other three finalists in what was ultimately to prove an unprecedentedly successful and extremely close run competition.

Having established its credentials, Ennis is now about to make real its plans and aspirations. Triona McInerney, co-ordinator of the town’s Information Age Town competition task force, says these plans have yet to be discussed and finalised with Telecom Éireann, but the likelihood is that training will form a big part of the campaign to promote usage of the various technologies that will come on steam.

There is little point in forcing technology on the local population, nor intimidating them with waves of new services and gadgets that they don’t understand, 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 go into the training process 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 PCs to increase their access to product 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 conducted.

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’s win from the banks and others has been tremendous, says McInerney, although no decisions have yet been taken on who 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.

Ennis is hardly regarded as a centre of high technology manufacturing, and the last time such an industry established there was all of 10 years ago. The town had already been acting to redress this situation with the construction of an advance factory, which will be ready in December, but there have been a number of inquiries from potential projects in the past week or two, says Triona McInerney, adding that, in one case, the promoter’s awareness and interest were a direct result of the town’s recent success.

The competition to find the State’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 - Castlebar, Kilkenny and Killarney - and extra funds to finance further development in the remaining 42 towns that took part in the competition.

AMONG the runners-up, Killarney will probably use its £1 million from Telecom Éireann to subvent the cost of ISDN lines for local businesses, installing portable training units in local schools to enhance children’s keyboard skills, upgrade the town’s website, and provide incentives that will attract high technology industrial projects.

In Kilkenny, education and awareness are priorities for the town’s own preparations for the Information Age, as are subsidised internet connections for local businesses and attracting indigenous and overseas high tech industries. There are also plans to take other interests on board, broadening the application of the town’s telecommunications plans to encompass the young, the marginalised and community interests, while at the same time attracting extra funding that will make the initial £1 million in Telecom Éireann grants go much further.

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 cafe, in each of the towns, which will then run the centres on a commercial or semi-commercial basis. In addition, a specially constructed intranet will connect all the 46 towns in the competition, keeping them in exclusive contact with each other at all times and communicate on Information Age developments.

This will be 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 concern to pursue common objectives, such as securing EU funding and devising common standards in such areas as multimedia delivery of community services.

Even these initiatives are unlikely to set the boundaries of the telecommunications fervour now gripping this State. Ennis’s success has set a headline for other Irish towns, cities and villages to follow in the years ahead. That much had become relevant long before the town came out best in the Information Age Town competition, when it was inundated with requests from neighbouring towns, such as Scarrif and Ennistymon, seeking information and involvement, and the Ennis committee are now determined that their success will not be an isolated triumph, but one that will reach out to the wider community of the south west.

Untimately, the lessons of the Ennis experience, and the progress made in the other 45 towns of the Information Age Alliance, will be taken on board when Telecom Éireann marks out its strategy for the 21st century.

A team from Dublin City University will be closely monitoring what happens in Ennis and elsewhere as households and businesses wake up to the ability of voicemail, ISDN, the internet and smartcards to transform the way they interact with each other and the outside world.

The result of that progress, incorporated in Telecom Éireann’s long term plans and day-to-day functions, will ultimately be to help the rest of us adapt to the Information Age, embrace its beneficent technology, and enable this State to take its proper place in the real and virtual worlds of the new millennium.