Luck of the Wired Irish

 
 
By John Mulqueen  |  Posted 2001-05-07 Email Print this article Print
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A little bit of the Net fell from out of Eircom one day

Ennis, Ireland -- John OConnor hates computers almost as much as he hates television. The two inundate children with violence and produce horrible adults, he believes.

A visceral dislike of technology is not surprising in a man who settled in Ennis, a town in County Clare, in the west of Ireland, to run a shop that caters to traditional Irish music lovers. What is surprising is that OConnor has put his shop, Custys, on the Internet. He communicates with and ships to customers around the world. Hes even won awards for his site.

"Some American and Japanese customers alerted us that e-mail and a Web site might work for this shop," OConnor says. "When we heard about this new program, we went to them and told them what we wanted. The shop is in Clare, and Clare is traditional music. This has to sell."

The program OConnor referred to is Ennis Information Age Town, a $17 million project launched by Eircom, the Irish telephone company, to see what happens when a midsized town is completely wired. That meant building a fiber-optic ring network, giving PCs and high-speed Internet access to any resident, business, school, community organization or public entity that asked, training people how to use computers and the Internet -- even helping create and host Web sites. Wireless data applications are also being developed.

The Ennis project is unique because of its breadth.

"There are wired towns in Europe and North America that tend to focus on the economic sector, or the community or education or industrial parks," says Joe Saunders, an independent consultant working on the project. "This attempts to connect the whole community -- residents, the local authorities, existing industry and the schools."

And the Winner Is . . .

Ennis won the project in September 1997, after competing with 49 other towns. Three towns received about $1.2 million for small projects, and grants of over $11,000 were set aside for the remaining 46.

The effort is part of a larger $46 million Eircom-backed program to promote computer and Internet literacy nationwide. That included providing dedicated Internet access to 4,200 schools, putting PCs in every school, installing telephones in some schools that did not have any, and establishing 30 education centers for computer training around the country.

"Before this 80 percent of the schools in the country had a computer; now 100 percent do," says Des McLaughlin, Eircoms director of business development. "Ten percent of the schools had a dedicated Internet access; now almost 100 percent do."

Eircom says the market insight alone into which services consumers and businesses want makes Ennis Information Town well worth the cost. The marketing information is useful as Eircom deals with a competitive telecommunications market, which includes plans by other carriers to build fiber-optic networks in Irelands western regions.

Add to that the public relations and social benefits of mobilizing an entire community in a project, and making residents aware of what computing and the Internet are all about.

"Even if we called the whole thing off after the competition and said it was a joke, there is no prize, we have already changed the mind set of the population," McLaughlin says. "For the first time we had 50 communities developing a project with people from a whole diversity of backgrounds, including the Chamber of Commerce, voluntary agencies, sports clubs and the police department."

Popular With Residents

By all accounts the program has had its greatest success in the schools. The first students in Ennis secondary schools who have had computers throughout their school years will graduate next year. Children in one sixth-grade class in Holy Family School have developed programs to help children in the lower grades use their computers. Children in another school, Gaelscoil Mhichíl Ciosóg, have developed online newsletters in the Irish language. St. Flannans College has built a separate information technology building, with additional donations from other benefactors, and offered free computer training to senior citizens.

But the program has also been popular with Ennis residents. It gave Pentium II multimedia PCs to any resident or business, school, community or public agency that wanted one, for a fee of about $300, or one-sixth the cost of the machines. The fees are used to support the project.

Between May 1998 and September 1998 almost 4,000 PCs were distributed, a total that has since risen to about 5,500 -- in a town with a population of about 18,000. This means that roughly 85 percent of the residents now have PCs. That compares to an Irish national average of 40 percent and the U.S. average of about 50 percent. Almost 83 percent of Ennis residents have Internet access.

Residents must demonstrate a basic knowledge of computers before they receive one, and training classes are available for anyone who needs them, including more advanced training for certification for the European Computer Driving License. Computer laboratories were installed in all local schools, and at least one PC was put in each classroom, along with dedicated Internet access. Teachers and older students were provided with individual e-mail accounts. Next-generation Wireless Application Protocol and 3G wireless applications are on the drawing boards.

The town library, already online, was upgraded with an Asymmetric DSL connection and a row of computers designed to support a local history research project and e-mail services for tourists and refugee families from around the world. Businesses could get Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN) lines, help with evaluating their computer needs, and up to $17,000 to defray the cost of installing computers and Internet projects.

People with special needs have been given individual attention, and efforts are being made to attract disadvantaged persons into the mainstream. Autistic children are using computers in schools. Thomas Connole, who is blind, is using speech recognition software to pursue a career as a writer. Travelers, the Irish nomadic people, have installed computers in their wagons so their children can receive a contemporary education.

Good PR

Eircom undertook the effort to be a good corporate citizen, for the positive public relations, to build its brand, as a test bed for new services and to sustain Irelands phenomenal economic growth of recent years.

"It is all about selling Ireland Inc.," McLaughlin says. "We sell Ireland as a lot of bright, young, educated people. If the components of the drivers of that are changing, we need to change our education to respond to that."

It is not that Ireland or Ennis or County Clare has unemployment problems. Far from it. Everyone admits there is a shortage of skilled workers in the region. For the first time in more than a century, Irish emigrants are returning to the country which is importing foreign workers.

Much of the economic development, however, has centered in Dublin and the area around the Shannon Airport, which enjoys lower corporate tax rates than the rest of the country. The government is trying to expand development beyond those areas. Dublin is crowded, expensive and unattractive as a place to live for many Irish. Even Shannon is jammed with traffic that clogs local roads. There has not been any industrial development in Ennis for more than a decade.

That is changing, however. A new, 750,000-square-foot industrial park is scheduled to open early in 2003, the same time that corporate tax rates will be equalized around the country. The technology park will house 20 buildings.

Call centers, where company representatives provide customer service or sell products to prospective customers, have flourished in Ireland. But unless they are outbound centers that offer challenging jobs that require decision making or multilingual skills, with the chance of promotions and higher pay, there is a high turnover rate, project consultant Saunders says.

Saunders, who is responsible for developing programs that attract industry to the Ennis region, says the goal is to produce 1,000 jobs in Ennis by 2006. He is looking for one midsized call center, with about 150 to 200 positions. In the next 18 months Saunders hopes to attract four to six global companies into several new buildings outside the park. He also wants to house remote offices for companies in Shannon.

Ennis is a dormitory town for Galway, Limerick and Shannon. It can draw on the 5,000 graduates with technology backgrounds who come out of universities and technology institutes in Cork, Galway and Limerick.

In an Internet economy that will require media and content skills, Ennis and Clare can draw on the countys rich tradition in music and creative arts, says Michael Byrne, CEO of Eircom Ennis Information Age Town, a joint-venture company set up by Eircom and Ennis.

Saunders efforts have had some success. Sigma Softlabs, a subsidiary of Swedish firm Sigma Group, located its first office in Western Europe in Ennis -- in part because of the Information Age Town program. That Noel Shannon, managing director at Sigma Softlabs, is a native of the region and wanted to return home from a job in Sweden no doubt was also a factor. Eircom Ennis Information sped up the installation of six ISDN connections to his office, as well as an ISDN line to his home on a hill overlooking the ocean.

Another company, Ennislifts, a rapidly growing distributor and installer of elevators for Macpuarsa, a large Spanish elevator manufacturer, has upgraded to 128-kilobit-per-second ISDN service from 32-Kbps dial-up lines. The company has also replaced its manual systems with a network of computers to handle internal operations. The computers were purchased simultaneously, but separately from the Eircom project.

Pat Taylor, Ennislifts managing director, says he does not know how Ennislifts could survive without the computers and the network. The company will install more than 300 elevators this year, compared with 12 installed eight years ago. Engineering drawings are e-mailed to clients, and to Macpuarsa, something that even large Dublin firms cannot do, Taylor says.

Plans are to link a Web site under development to Macpuarsas corporate Web site. Taylor wants his customers to be able to access the site to check the status of orders, and to allow architects to use online tools to design elevators in new buildings.

Old Meets New

Historical businesses are also making use of the program. The Old Ground Hotel, a central social site for the Ennis area, replaced old DOS computers and a book this thick with 10 PCs and an ISDN link to handle all internal operations and bookings. Seventy percent of reservations now come in by e-mail, allowing the hotel to do better forecasting and processing of orders, says Raymond Foudy, assistant manager.

Brendan Rochford, a young, college-trained pharmacist with an education in marketing and public relations, has just created a Web site, called Eirpharm.com, that links his Ennis pharmacy, Rochfords Pharmacy, with another run by his wife in Galway, and soon a third in Corofin, a small village south of Ennis. He replaced 32-Kbps dial-up lines with an ISDN connection to support the Web site.

Rochford says Eirpharm.com supports marketing and customer service. The pharmacy will soon begin a trial to send bills for prescriptions directly to the state agencies, speeding up payment. The government hopes capturing prescription bills electronically will help it contain medical expenses.

"It would not be possible to run product of the month [promotions] in traditional media because of the cost," Rochford says. "This increases our marketing and gives us national and even international exposure."

Medicines cant be sold or ordered electronically in Ireland, but toiletries, cosmetics and nonprescription items can. Rochfords Pharmacy even receives orders from Hawaii -- from a Clare emigrant who buys Irish skin cream.

An ADSL line has been installed in the home of Jim Bradley to support the new management-consulting practice he has set up. The project is also helping defray the cost of a new, more powerful computer for Bradley, who is linking his practice with those of other consultants in Ireland.

At Custys, OConnor says his Web site was created to generate revenue during the months when tourist traffic is slow, and to develop relationships with Irish music enthusiasts. "We get to know them and can recognize them when they come in the shop," he says. Custys received a roughly $2,300 award for being one of the best projects in the town -- money that is used for scanners and a new digital camera. Although a subsidy on communications costs will end next year, OConnor plans to keep the site running.

Custys has an unusual advantage in marketing traditional Irish music. OConnor and Eoin ONeill, who runs the shop and plays in a local band, Céili Bandits, have set up an independent company, Clachán, that records local, nonprofessional folk musicians in their homes, and sells the CDs through the shop. "This is for people who want to know what music sounded like before Riverdance," ONeill says. "They want to hear the rooty stuff. It is not studio-processed."

Old Ways Die Hard

The server for Custys sits in OConnors apartment, but neither he nor his family will use the computer after work hours. "I have a total phobia about computers and have no interest in it," OConnor says. "If I want to read up on something, I read it in a book or a newspaper or a magazine. Kids just live their lives on computers and TV. It shows them heads being chopped off. It turns them into horrible adults. Whatever phobia I have, my wife is a total troglodyte."

OConnors distaste for computers indicates that the Internet and computing are still working their way into everyday life, and that there is an ambivalence about the advent of the technology.

Only 7 percent of businesses have opted for ISDN lines, apparently because they did not see the benefits, McLaughlin says. Eircom Ennis Information Age Towns Byrne says four staffers are working with more than 400 businesses to explain the program and that more are probably needed.

He notes that small businesses are skeptical about technology that is not easy to use, and even businesspeople who use the technology at work leave it alone after quitting time.

Taylor at Ennislifts says he used to read and send e-mail from home before his office was wired, but he never uses the PC now. Nor does he take his laptop on the road to check e-mail, even though he travels three or four days per week.

Other residents say the connection charges are too expensive. Sheila OHalloran, secretary at the local Multiple Sclerosis Society, says many PCs are left unused and cited the connection charges as the reason. But she uses her PC at home to search the Internet for information about treatments for MS around the world.

As a regulated entity, Eircom could not give free access to all residents even on a trial basis. However, flat-rate plans are under study.

Ireland would not be Ireland without a dissident, and Sean Spellissy will not own a phone or computer, let alone connect to the Internet. "Heaven is a Home Without A Phone" proclaims a sign over his desk in his used-book shop in Ennis. The author of nine books -- all written in longhand and then given to someone who types them into a computer and sends them to his publisher in Holland -- says: "I prefer to write by hand. Also I am very leery of material that I would pick up from it. I think you need restrictions on the Internet."

Eircoms McLaughlin says the experience shows that "even when Internet access and the computer is made effectively free a substantial percent -- 20 percent -- dont want it, dont get it, dont care." Learning who wants computers and what they want them for saves Eircom the expense of rolling out services that people do not want, McLaughlin says.

But evidence exists that the Net is contagious. Seamus Mulqueen, an Ennis resident, is helping Newmarket on Fergus, a nearby town, put up a Web site about the town and its attractions. "They are doing it in part because of what Ennis has done," he says.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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