The Rise of Slow Data

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The most connected cities in Asia are about to install networks designed not to be super-smart, but super-slow. Welcome to the era of slow data, says Jamie Carter.

The internet is about to double in size, and something has to give. Cisco predicts that 50 billion devices will be connected to the internet in 2020, a doubling in just five years. However, most of those devices are not phones, but things.

Everyday objects – streetlights and electricity meters, bicycles and buses, and wind turbines and aircraft engines – are gradually being fitted with sensors that collect data on everything they do and send it all to the cloud. This is the Internet of Things (IoT), it’s the ‘smart city, and it’s Industry 4.0. Whatever you call it, it’s a big deal. But won’t those billions of new devices bottleneck the internet? This isn’t bandwidth-hungry movie downloads or live streaming in 4K; this is small packets of bytes using their own unique messaging networks – and this slow data is coming to Asia.

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We’re talking about devices like the smart bin, which has a sensor that measures how much trash it contains. It sends an alert to city authorities when it needs emptying, probably once a week, or perhaps even less. It can’t use the cellular network because of battery power; just as your phone needs recharging each night, so would the bin. That would be impossible. Cue low-power radios and new low power, wide area networks that promise not speed, but dependability over a massive geographical area for years, or even decades, on one battery charge.

slow data

Besides, cellular networks are next to useless in rural areas, where IoT projects include monitoring water levels in reservoirs, measuring soil moisture on plantations, and bringing connectivity to remote oil and gas platforms and mines. IoT networks are even being set-up to track cattle around vast ranches in Australia’s Northern Territory and to make sure conservationists know the exact location of endangered wildlife, including African rhinos.

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Until recently, Asia had been lagging behind in creating these physical IoT networks, but that’s quickly changing. “Asia is a year behind Europe and North America because the telecoms operators haven’t had much competition,” says Peter Hogewoning, regional sales director for APAC at Actility, which helps companies set-up projects that need such low power, wide area networks.

There’s a tech reason, too. “In Europe, they use the same frequency, in North America also, but in Asia every single country uses a different frequency, so it’s difficult to create an ecosystem of IoT devices.” Happily, some harmonisation is underway and IoT devices are now much, much easier to manufacture in Asia, for Asia.

slow data

One truly remote – and flourishing – sector of the IoT is global asset tracking of cargo in and out of ports like Hong Kong and Singapore, which also uses satellite tracking from Inmarsat. “We can put a gateway on a container ship and follow it, and every individual container on it, around the globe,” says Hogewoning.

“The IoT is about being able to monitor where things are, and getting some data from machine sensors,” says Murray Hankinson, managing director of Thinxtra Asia, which is deploying a new network in Hong Kong for Sigfox, one of the big players in IoT.

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But the clincher for the IoT could be healthcare. “A really big area is assisted living,” says Hankinson, citing that at 86 years old, Hong Kong has the highest average life expectancy in the world. “We can use the IoT to ensure people are safe, with everything from motion sensors that send an alert when someone has a fall, to a tracker so that loved ones can see where the elderly are.”

It may be a slow burner, but the IoT could be destined to age well.

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About Author

Jamie Carter is a freelance science, technology and travel journalist and author who writes for, the South China Morning Post, BBC Sky at Night and Travel + Leisure.

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