Maine Video System Eyes Small-Business Development

All over the country, small businesses struggle to compete with larger, better-funded competitors, but in parts of northern and eastern Maine, the challenges can seem as long and insurmountable as the winters. "People who don't live in the state of Maine don't realize how big it is," said Terri Jones, the technical assistance director of the community development block-grant program for the state's Office of Community Development (OCD) in Augusta.

Her office's staff, in contrast, knows just how demanding the distances can be in the country's northeasternmost state. Mileage and other travel expenses are a significant part of OCD's budget as its staff travels to meet clients and economic-outreach workers from other offices in the state. And the clients themselves-small businesses in remote regions-know how hard they must work to overcome problems, real and perceived, to compete successfully with companies from larger, more centrally located cities.

OCD has teamed up with two nonprofit economic-development organizations and a few other state agencies to try to shrink those distances electronically. A videoconferencing-based system called ExtraNet has been designed to help businesses and development workers reach their target audiences easily and effectively.

The new network will be an expansion of an existing wide-area network, built largely on top of the University of Maine's network, that links economic-development regional offices throughout the state. Both projects were funded in part through the Telecommunications and Information Infrastructure Assistance Program (TIIAP) of the U.S. National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

Push Economic Support

The ExtraNet project will connect two nonprofit development organizations-the Eastern Maine Development Corp. (EMDC) and the Northern Maine Development Commission-with one another and will push economic-support services out to six satellite community offices.

The satellite offices, to be located at University of Maine campus sites, hospitals or other centralized, technology-enabled public areas, will give small business the tools they need to compete in larger markets. "We want to be able to foster economic development by helping companies market to prime contractors," said Rick Alexander, government marketing specialist for EMDC in Bangor. "Say we have a small supplier trying to market printed circuit boards to a company in Boston," he said. "The local company could use the system to access market data and to send information back and forth."

As part of the expansion, block grant, marketing and other data that was once available only to eastern Maine staff can be accessed directly by citizens visiting any of the satellite offices. "We're looking at a more sophisticated kind of traffic, and we're opening databases to be used by communities that are served by both [economic-

development] corporations," said Peter Thibeault, an EMDC project manager.

For example, users can visit an EMDC, Northern Maine Development or satellite office to search the Maine Access Supplier System, which is a database of more than 2,000 Maine- based companies, for such specific information as the number of trucking companies owned by women in the state. Eventually, Alexander said, this type of data will be available over the Internet as well.

In the meantime, EMDC and its development partners are charging ahead to deliver more of the "sophisticated traffic" to which Thibeault referred-specifically, in the form of videoconferencing. As part of the second TIIAP grant, the state is accepting bids for the video-based system.

"Video access will give everyone interaction with [EMDC headquarters in] Bangor to discuss economic development without having to drive," Thibeault said.

Small businesses will not only be able to meet with development staff people, they also will be able to use the videoconferencing system to market their goods and meet with prospective customers in other regions and states. "They can use the system to reach clients, demonstrate technologies at trade shows, hire sales reps and so on," Thibeault explained. The hope is that such capabilities will lead to enhanced market penetration at a competitive cost advantage and bring greater success in bidding on projects in the federal laboratory system.

Internally, the videoconferencing system will allow participating support organizations to cut travel costs significantly while increasing the frequency and quality of their contact with local communities, OCD's Jones said. In particular, the ability to view and mark documents electronically will be a godsend to her office, she said. "As part of the grant-approval process, we have to see documents and files," Jones explained. "This will be a way to do that without an on-site inspection every time."

With a request for proposals having been issued, the video system is not yet a reality, but Thibeault and Alexander stressed that the system will use standard, off-the-shelf hardware and software for maximum compatibility with other companies' systems. The video network will comprise a mix of conference room, desktop and mobile units.

Grants and matching funds from the state of Maine will buy the hardware and pay for maintenance and infrastructure costs for one year, Alexander said. After that, each economic-development entity that receives equipment will be responsible for hardware and software maintenance and telecommunications charges. Some may choose to charge business users a fee to recover those costs, he said.

By dividing the cost of the ExtraNet project-both the WAN expansion and videoconferencing-among several state agencies, each participating group will be able to keep costs in check, Alexander said.

Another cost saver: Where possible, the system will piggyback on existing hardware and wiring, as it does now on the University of Maine network, and in the future, it may piggyback with hospitals and other sites that are already set up for videoconferencing equipment. Alexander said EMDC hopes to award the contract this month, take delivery in April, test the system in the summer and have it all up and running by September or October.

-- Tracy Mayor is a Beverly, Mass.-based free-lance writer specializing in information technology. She can be reached at tmayor@shore.net.

*****

At a Glance

Eastern Maine Development Corp.

Bangor, Maine

www.emdc.org

Staff Members: 35

Small-Business Clients: 500, which collectively marketed $97 million in goods and services in the past 18 months.

ExtraNet Expansion Project

Organizational Payback: An existing wide-area network and forthcoming videoconferencing capabilities allow economic-development workers to communicate with each other and reach small businesses in remote parts of a region as big as the other five New England states combined.

Citizen Advantage: Small businesses in remote locations can access data about Maine businesses and suppliers as well as data on the population, the economy, housing, education and natural resources. Companies also will be able to use public videoconferencing equipment to market their goods and services on equal footing with larger, more centrally located competitors.

Cost Containment: By pooling resources and grants among several public-service providers, individual organizations are able to keep costs down and expectations reasonable. EMDC teamed with several other government and nonprofit economic-

development entities to win grants and find other funds to build its long-distance infrastructure.

Tools: These vary widely, depending on location. They range from Digital Subscriber Line over copper wire to Integrated Services Digital Network packet-switched fiber optics. Many sites piggyback on an existing WAN maintained by the University of Maine system. The forthcoming videoconferencing system has yet to be specified, but managers emphasize that it will use commercially available, off-the-shelf hardware and software for maximum compatibility.

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