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Monday, 10 April, 2000, 13:00 GMT 14:00 UK
Living in the future
By BBC News Online's Ian Jolly
For a glimpse of the digital future, the place to go is not a bustling world capital, but the small and pretty town of Ennis, in the far west of Ireland.
In 1997, Ennis won a competition to become the country's Information Age Town. The prize was IR£15m ($18.2m) to make it one of the most technologically advanced communities on earth.
The money came from telecom company Eircom, which wanted to see how consumers would be using technology.
Homes and schools were provided with computers, a town website was set up and businesses were encouraged to get online.
Mobile phone trials
Courses are running and full advice and support is available. The town has also been used as a testbed. ADSL has been installed and this month Ennis completes trials of commercial applications of Wap mobile phone technology.
"Residents have taken to it much more fully than we would have anticipated," said Michael Byrne, chief executive of Ennis Information Age Town.
"People here are intelligently using technology to apply it to their own lives."
Examples range from the blind person who sends e-mails to friends and relatives around the world to the local hurling club, which webcasts its games.
Some residents have taken to to the high-tech life more readily than others.
Mick O'Rourke uses his computer to help run his nursery business. He admits he was an unlikely recruit to the scheme but would now be lost without his PC.
He uses it for accounts and designing and printing labels. His next step is developing his own website.
For those businesses which were already looking to go online, the project has been a huge boon.
Partner John O'Connor says he was anxious that the internet supplemented the main business without damaging its atmosphere.
The website, illustrated by a local artist, provides a global showcase for musicians without the means for big marketing campaigns.
"We're dealing with a product that's a passion. We're not solely in it to make money - the primary goal is not the Celtic tiger. We don't want it here," says Mr O'Connor.
Despite initial ignorance and fears, Custy's has learned to harness the technology to suit its needs.
"We are going to keep parameters on it. We don't want items for sale that have nothing to do with the shop. We could sell loads of stuff that we could make great profits on, but that's not our motivation," says Mr O'Connor.
It now uses e-mail to deal with suppliers and to handle inquiries generated by its website.
The company won the business award and the overall prize in a recent competition to see how Ennis was tackling the challenge of technology.
But director Gearoid Mannion admits that the benefits have so far been limited.
The conversion rate from e-mail inquiries is very low, and online sales of holidays and insurance have also been poor.
"We now realise that a large amount of money will have to be spent marketing the whole thing. It doesn't just happen that because you have a website, money flows," said Mr Mannion.
Sense of pride
"There are still aspects to the whole scene that we're not happy with, but I am happier knowing we have a reasonable internet marketing initiative going on."
The project has given Ennis a buzz and a new sense of pride and confidence.
The impact of an experiment using smart cards instead of cash has also been limited. Some Wap handsets were distributed so people could load their cards from their mobiles.
The technological lessons have proved valuable - the system works - but residents have rarely used it other than to pay for car parking.
However, project head Michael Byrne believes the wider effects will be long-lasting.
"Although we haven't yet spawned significant dot.com companies, we have already seen the seeds of entrepreneurship and industrial development.
"For a region like ours which is remote from the marketplace and does not have mineral resources, if we are going to survive we have to do it in a digital economy."
He is particularly pleased that schools have used the technology creatively and constructively. The Ennis experiment has inspired similar projects in Welsh and Scottish communities.
"Many are still saying they do not fully understand," added Mr Byrne, "but at least we are aware of our lack of understanding and that in itself is a great benefit.
"Those societies that think they can wait for this to happen in a natural progression are going to be very much poorer societies."
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