Ennis in County Clare has always been a halfway type of town. Most visitors to scenic spots in the west of the Irish Republic will pass through this town of 7,000 people. This is especially true of American tourists, whose transatlantic flights touch down at Shannon Airport, just outside town.
Now, however, the residents of Ennis hope an information-age experiment will put them center stage. Earlier this year, Telecom Eireann (TE), Ireland's majority state-owned telecommunications company, invited towns throughout the country to submit proposals on how they would best use information technology.
The chief executive of TE, Alfie Khan, promised to transform the winning entrant into a showcase of modern high-tech. The advantages to TE are obvious - an opportunity to obtain valuable information on the use of computers in everyday lives. The winning town would become, Mr. Khan claimed, "a guinea-pig for the future."
The prize was highly attractive: a $23 million investment by TE in computers, smart-card technology (so-called "cashless" transactions), and online services.
The competition was confined to towns with populations of no more than 30,000. Forty-six throughout Ireland expressed interest. In August, a short list of four was drawn up, with Ennis eventually selected as the winner.
This town in a rural part of Ireland won out because of massive local support for the project and the strength of its pitch to the competition judges.
Last month when the judges visited, the organizing committee made its presentation in front of a live audience of 200 people, as well as on the Internet and the town's local radio station. The head of the Ennis Chamber of Commerce, T.J. Waters, says he had never "seen any project that galvanized the community like this one."
NOW life will never be the same, as TE kick starts its information-age project. The company claims it will be the first project of this kind in the world, saying that nowhere else will have as many kinds of communications technologies deployed in the same place at the same time.
The changes will be apparent to those living in Ennis almost immediately. Next month, digital voice mail will be installed on special telephone lines.
Early next year, the town will be hooked up to "Ennis-intranet." This will allow every home and business, as well as public utilities, to be linked by computer. Most local stores will be provided with a smart-card machine. Smart cards can store their own information, including a cash value that can be debited with each purchase. The people of Ennis will be encouraged to create a genuine cashless environment in their town.
The three schools in Ennis are set to be major beneficiaries, with a large amount of the TE investment being directed at educational computer hardware. All students beginning at the age of 5 will receive computer training.
One of the organizers of the town's competition bid, Pamela Wall, says that the enthusiasm for the project has largely been generated by the young people in Ennis. One out of 4 of those living in the town is less than 15 years years old, and 70 percent of the population is under 45.
While computers for schools will be free, businesses and personal users in Ennis will have technology available at heavily subsidized prices. TE says more than 80 percent of the homes and businesses will have personal computers with Internet access. The company has promised that "poorer families will not be priced out of the project."
When Ennis won the competition, a crowd gathered in the town's main square to sing the county's anthem, "The Lovely Rose of Clare."
One young reveler joked that the next time she sang it, she would be accompanied by music downloaded from her own personal "information town" computer.