Maine’s Broadband Network Grows and with IT — Jobs in the Global Economy

Governor Baldacci announces that as the result of a nationwide search, NotfiyMD chose Farmington, Maine, to locate in.

by Ramona du Houx

Ever tried to place an order over the phone only to find you’re talking to a computer that doesn’t understand your needs? It’s frustrating to the majority of Americans who prefer human contact through the phone line. A friendly voice at the end of the line makes a difference. To find a workforce that puts customers first, that is efficient, and exudes enthusiasm is a challenge for call centers. That’s one reason why Maine is becoming a leader in this growth industry. That workforce is here.

The state has more than 110,000 miles of fiber-optic cable and 100 percent digital phone switching technology in place. Maine leads the country with its telecommunications infrastructure, according to MESDA, a statewide trade association for Maine’s software and information technology industry.

Firms already with call-center facilities in Maine include leading consumer products firms, financial services, and health-care firms, such as L.L. Bean, T-Mobile Communications, Microdyne, Livebridge, and Taction.

In 2006 T-Mobile announced an expansion of their facility in Oakland, due to the high performance of the workforce.

Even though MBNA closed call centers in the state, they left behind trained personnel that exceeded the company’s expectations. Those involved in the call-center industry have become aware of Maine’s workforce reputation, and as a result are locating in Maine.

Governor John E. Baldacci visited two former MBNA facilities where new call-center businesses are expanding; one in Presque Isle, the other in Farmington. Connect North America has been in operation for 14 years as a successful outbound teleservices company with its home base in New Brunswick.

"When MBNA announced that they were closing their doors, we looked forward to the day when more doors would open for workers here in Aroostook County," said Baldacci in Presque Isle. "That day is here, and it’s with a company that is already successful and expanding into our state."

Connect North America plans to hire approximately 300 employees at the facility, with about 60 percent of them being full-time jobs with health-care benefits.

After a nationwide search, NotifyMD, Inc., a provider of after-hours messaging, business-hour call management, automated patient-reminders, and patient care compliance for physicians, selected Farmington for its new national Care Coordination Center, in the former MBNA facility.

This Tennessee-based company, that has developed a health-care messaging system to improve the way patient calls to physicians are handled, is bringing 120 jobs to Farmington.

"We realized Farmington would be the perfect fit," said NotifyMD President Dr. Gary Ferguson. "We’re particularly excited about this partnership because it will help us achieve the community partnership and involvement that we have strategized about for years. The governor’s philosophy towards business and community, along with his determination, made Maine an extremely viable candidate for NotifyMD."

Last March, Maine & Co., a nonprofit business that promotes Maine to businesses interested in relocation and expanding, heard that NotifyMD were looking for a location to open a new facility. Working with the Department of Economic and Community Development and the Governor’s Office, Maine & Company rolled out the red carpet and took NotifyMD around the state to various qualified locations.

"I really don’t know if I’ll be able to translate how well we were treated, when I return home," said Dr. Ferguson. "Everyone went out of their way. This is a terrific growth and expansion opportunity for us. Once we came to Farmington, met with the community, and saw the facility, we wanted to be a part."

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NotifyMD President Dr. Gary Ferguson talks about his company’s commitment to the state, bringing call-center jobs to Farmington, Maine.

"Last time that I was here it was a sad day for the community with Bank of America [MBNA] leaving," said the governor, who worked with the community throughout the transition and had his agencies help with job placement, training and the search for a new company to locate in the MBNA facility. "We worked together and now we have a lot to celebrate. Everyone worked incredibly hard to make today a reality."

Dr. Ferguson said that they want to be the best in Maine in giving quality service to customers, working with the community and becoming the best employer in Maine. "Those are the kinds of values and principles that we in Maine admire and appreciate," said Baldacci. "They will continue to have a wonderful working relationship with all of us, because we want them to be successful and grow."

"This is an innovative, young, energetic, vibrant company with a positive corporate culture that really stands out," said Alison Hagerstrom, the executive director of Greater Franklin Development Corporation.

"We are the largest contact center base that deals with physician-to-patient communications in the United States," said Dr. Ferguson. The Farmington site will be their sixth U.S. contact center, joining others in Florida, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Missouri. The company’s client base consists of about 18,000 physicians in 47 states, and more than 75,000 patient encounters are managed daily.

"If there is one passion I have, it is a commitment to physician-directed care," said Dr. Ferguson, who has a doctorate in pharmacology and worked at a trauma center in California. "There is an expectation when you call your physician that you will receive an answer. In surveys we have found the most common complaint from patients is dealing with the phone. They hate voice mail and worry that they won’t be called back."

With NotifyMD incoming calls are answered by care coordinators, the human link between physicians and patients.

"We want to get the physicians back involved with patient care," said Ferguson. "The physician has been disenfranchised by insurance companies. Yet it is the physician who is the one who promotes patient care and management."

Using their own invention of a task management application known as WebMessenger, a patient’s calls to their doctor are automatically rerouted from the medical office to a control center. Then a care coordinator answers the phone and analyzes the need, using the doctor’s protocol — not following insurance companies’ requirements. The request or concern is then converted to text and forwarded to the physician’s computer for the doctor to read and respond to in order of priority.

"This is a growth sector in telecommunications and health care. In a national search, Maine came out on top," said the governor. "NotifyMD could have gone anywhere, but they chose Farmington."

Farmington led the nationwide competition because of a highly trained workforce, a state-of-the-art facility, and the tax incentives provided by the governor’s Pine Tree Zone (PTZ) program. The same reasons Connect North America expanded in Presque Isle are why FairPoint Communications are moving forward with their plans for an $800,000 expansion in China, Maine.

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"FairPoint is here mainly because of our great workforce. In many ways this is the kind of investment that can lead to more rapid economic growth in rural areas across the country," said Congressman Tom Allen." FairPoint chose Maine over other states to stay in and expand."

FairPoint Communications is a provider of communications services to rural communities across the country, offering services such as local and long-distance telephone and broadband internet services.

Last autumn, FairPoint announced that they would be closing ten of its call centers nationwide and cutting staff at ten others to consolidate their operations. In Maine they will be adding 35 new jobs, doubling the existing workforce and expanding the facility.

"This company has chosen two locations for call centers in a national competition. One is Washington State — within an hour and a half of Seattle — and the other is Maine," said Governor Baldacci, who went on to congratulate the employees for their work standards. "We ought to thank them from the entire state of Maine, because it’s their hard work at FairPoint Communications that has made this expansion possible."

"We’re a fast-growing company. We started out with 4,500 access lines, and now we have over 300,000 lines. There’s such a great workforce here in Maine. We intend to continue to add jobs here far into the future," said FairPoint Communications CEO Gene Johnson. "I consider the possibilities endless."

"FairPoint Communications is a quality company. They are investing in our people, our state, and the quality of their product," said the governor, who added that PTZ benefits have been extended to include FairPoint.. "Pine Tree Zones create a level playing field so that Maine can compete with anyone, anywhere. It’s an aggressive economic development tool. If a company wishes to expand or locate in an area of the state that’s not currently a PTZ, we’re more than willing to accommodate them."

"We’re very excited to have FairPoint expand here in South China; the jobs are good, the management is good, and it’s an opportunity to grow rural Maine. They could have gone anywhere," said Senator Libby Mitchell. "It’s not the entire piece of how we can grow the economy in rural areas, but it’s an important piece."

"FairPoint is here mainly because of our great workforce. What’s interesting is we have a rural communications company expanding in rural Maine. In many ways this is the kind of investment that can lead to more rapid economic growth in rural areas across the country. FairPoint chose Maine over other states to stay in and expand," said Congressman Tom Allen, who continues to work to ensure telecommunications remain open and accessible to all Americans. "I’m very excited that as FairPoint grows much of that growth will be right here in Maine."

In January FairPoint announced that it is merging with Verizon, which increases FairPoint’s customer base from sixty thousand to seven hundred thousand. FairPoint plans to invest $200 million throughout northern New England to improve customer support infrastructure for the next two years.

"We’ll be the eighth-largest telephone company in the United States," said Johnson. "Broadband access is not only the future of our business, it’s absolutely essential to drive economic growth."

With information technology (IT) advances, rural communities are becoming centers of international business. Marketing to the world from remote regions is becoming more attractive to businesses that can save funds locating in rural areas. With IT they don’t have to be in large cities, paying large sums for the privilege of being in the city. Now they can move to rural towns, as FairPoint or NotifyMD have done, and their employees can benefit from the quality of life Maine provides.

In Small Business Administration studies, for every dollar of investment in broadband infrastructure, five dollars are injected into the local economy.

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Governor John Baldacci toured FairPoint Communications in South China with CEO Gene Johnson. Baldacci talked to workers who helped convince management, because of their hard work, to expand in Maine.

With broadband, call-centers have dramatically increased globally, and Maine is becoming an international player in the industry.

The governor’s ConnectME initiative represents a collaboration between the state and communication service providers throughout Maine. With ConnectME designated zones — areas that don’t have adequate broadband connections — a sales and use tax reimbursement program for equipment used for telecommunications infrastructure is available, helping to improve IT investment throughout the state.

"Maine is in the middle of transitioning into the knowledge-based economy. We have the fiber optics and the infrastructure that we are continuing to upgrade. FairPoint and NotifyMD made sound business decisions to locate in Maine — in national competitions. These are testaments to the state’s infrastructure ability and to our people," said the governor. "We, as a state, have unlimited potential. We have unparalleled natural beauty. We have tremendous quality of life. And with an advanced telecommunications network, and our gold standard workforce, we have the ability to thrive in the global economy," said Governor Baldacci.

That continuous upgrade to Maine’s fiber-optic network just got another needed boost. Included in the governor’s emergency supplemental budget bill, which passed on January 30, was a request for $3 million that would create a needed regional optical network with dark fiber-optic cables in Maine. Now that the Legislature has approved the measure, Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor will add $1.9 million to the effort.

The dark fiber-optic cables will significantly increase broadband access capacity, as it links into an existing network between Ellsworth, Bangor, Portland, and Cambridge, Mass. Already on this mega-network, called Internet 2, are several research universities. To access Internet 2, $3.3 million will be spent on a 20-year lease. A fiber-optic cable between Bar Harbor and Ellsworth will be installed, and networking equipment will be purchase with the remainder of the funds.

Bar Harbor’s Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory, Maine Institute for Human Genetics and Health in Brewer, University of Southern Maine in Portland, the University of Maine at Orono, and UMaine’s Center for Cooperative Aquaculture Research in Franklin are other institutions that will benefit.

At Jackson Lab, researchers said this measure addresses their broadband capacity needs. Their current copper-wire connection has a broadband capacity many times less than that of the fiber-optic cable proposed, and it is also more expensive to use. This fiber-optic cable will strengthen Maine’s high-tech and biotech industries, enabling them to compete on a level playing field in the global marketplace.

Broadband is attracting more businesses to the state. The better the connections, the better Maine makes connections in the global marketplace, and the state’s economy grows.

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At the announcement of the Fairpoint Communications expansion: (L-R) South China Town Manager Dan L’Heureux, Governor John E. Baldacci, Fairpoint Communications CEO Gene Johnson, Deborah McNeil representing Sen. Olympia Snowe, and Congressman Tom Allen. "I’m very excited that as FairPoint grows, much of that growth will be right here in Maine," said Allen.