Somerset County officials voted Wednesday to approve $30,000 to fix a crucial gap in its internet infrastructure. The project, previously estimated to cost $1.5 million, will connect by satellite network the county jail in Madison, above, to the superior courthouse in downtown Skowhegan and the communications center near the Skowhegan-Norridgewock line, providing them all with backup internet in case of emergency. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel file

SKOWHEGAN — Somerset County government will complete a crucial link in its internet infrastructure for a fraction of the project’s original cost.

The county’s Board of Commissioners on Wednesday approved spending $30,000 to implement a satellite network that will serve as a backup to county-owned fiber internet that connects the county’s jail, courthouse, and emergency communications center.

The new network is necessary to provide redundancy to its existing fiber internet system in case of service disruptions, county officials said. The cost of the county’s original solution, which was to extend the fiber internet into a closed loop, was estimated at $1.5 million.

Around the time that the Somerset County Jail was finished in 2008, the county installed its own fiber internet that ran from the jail in East Madison to the superior courthouse in downtown Skowhegan and then to the communications center near the Skowhegan-Norridgewock line, according to County Administrator Tim Curtis.

But because the fiber was not a closed loop, if one part of the system went offline — for example, due to a power outage or a car crash into a pole carrying the fiber — it could affect county government’s ability to use internet and other related technology across the three locations.

That problem arose after December’s storm, when the courthouse in Skowhegan, which also houses several county departments, lost power and its backup generator stopped working, Curtis said at a February commissioners’ meeting. As a result, staff at the communications center were not able to use email.


Before the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020, county commissioners had set aside a total of more than $800,000 in capital reserves for the estimated cost of building “dark fiber” that would connect the existing fiber into a loop, Curtis said.

The idea was that if one part of the network went down, the loop would still allow connection to be maintained among the jail, courthouse, and communications center, county staff told commissioners.

Somerset County Administrator Tim Curtis Morning Sentinel file

But the project was sidelined due to the pandemic, and when the county revisited the idea recently, the cost had risen to $1.5 million, Curtis said. Much of that cost was for insurance, licensing and permit fees to the telecommunications companies that own the poles where the fiber would be strung. Approximately $400,000 of that total was for the county to purchase the fiber itself.

The new solution, approved by the Board of Commissioners, only costs $30,000. It will use Starlink satellite technology as the backup network instead of fiber internet.

The system will be tested on a frequent basis to ensure it is working properly, Curtis told the commissioners.

The Board of Commissioners in March approved moving $350,000 of the more than $800,000 in capital reserves that were set aside for the “dark fiber” loop project to a different account for an unrelated IT project.

It is unclear what commissioners will do with the approximately $500,000 remaining in the capital reserve account.

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