BBC Homepage World Service Education
BBC Homepagelow graphics version | feedback | help
BBC News Online
 You are in: Business
Front Page 
UK Politics 
Market Data 
Your Money 
Business Basics 
Talking Point 
In Depth 

Ian Jolly reports from Ennis
"The town has a hugely valuable commodity - knowledge"
 real 28k

Monday, 10 April, 2000, 13:00 GMT 14:00 UK
Living in the future
Ennis town centre
Market day in Ireland's high-tech town
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.

Ennis scene
The town is starting to attract investment
Residents paid IR£260 ($316) for a computer package worth IR£1,800 ($2,187). In Ennis 82% of homes are connected to the internet, compared with a European average of 22% and 50% in advanced online countries such as the US.

"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.

Unlikely recruit

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.

John O'Connor of Custy's
John O'Connor: Technology will not overwhelm tradition
Custy's is a small, friendly shop specialising in traditional Irish music; it's a big scene in County Clare, with many local musicians making their own recordings.

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.

Tom Mannion Travel
Gearoid Mannion: Converting e-mails into sales is difficult
Tour operator Tom Mannion Travel saw the infusion of cash and support as a way of enabling it to develop the business and be more competitive.

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.

Smart card machine
Smart cards have had only limited uses
But there's no doubt that while many have embraced the technology, others hardly touch their computers - the higher phone bills have been a deterrent for some.

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 companies, we have already seen the seeds of entrepreneurship and industrial development.

Digital survival

"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."

Search BBC News Online

Advanced search options
Launch console
See also:

10 Apr 00 | Business
Online family affair
12 Nov 99 | The Economy
Irish boom draws the Welsh
09 Jul 99 | The Company File
Windfalls as Telecom Eireann shares soar
14 May 99 | Your Money
Ireland swept by share fever
Internet links:

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Links to other Business stories are at the foot of the page.

E-mail this story to a friend

Links to more Business stories