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IoT Breakthroughs in Taiwan

The Taiwan economy is performing respectably this year on the back of ascendant global demand for electronics products. In the January-March 2017 period, exports jumped 15.1% year-on-year, the fastest growth in six years. Economists say the gross domestic product should expand 2% this year, the best performance since 2014.

The Taiwanese government has long urged industry to boost spending on research and development to create “an innovation-driven economy,” but has done little to ease burdensome regulations which hinder that objective. As a result, Taiwan missed most of the opportunities of the internet and mobile-internet eras.

Smart Cities Technology Implementation

Policymakers and business leaders are now pinning their hopes of industrial transformation on the emerging Internet of Things (IoT), a network of devices from smartphones to vehicles which are connected to one another. One of the preeminent applications for IoT devices is “smart cities,” which use connected devices including lights, sensors, and meters to gather data for analysis. Cities are able to use the data to improve their living environments.

Smart cities have the potential to become a major global industry in Asia as an innovation hub. Asia is the region where urban needs, technological readiness, and government support for smart cities are most closely aligned.

Taiwan has implemented smart cities technology most effectively so far in the area of transportation. It has established a nationwide electronic toll collection system (ETC), introduced a cash reloadable smart transportation card (EasyCard), and increasingly monitors parking spaces electronically. In the healthcare field, Taiwan has installed an embedded chip in its national health card containing the cardholder’s full medical history.

Telecom Sector

To encourage innovation in the sector, the government has released radio spectrum in the sub-gigahertz range for IoT use, and the Telecommunications Management Act approved by the Executive Yuan and now in the hands of the Legislative Yuan would ease restrictions on companies looking to invest in IoT.

A key element of Taiwan’s strategy in IoT and the overall development of the telecom sector is partnering with foreign firms. This effort got a big boost with the launch in Taiwan of French telecom Sigfox’s Low Power Wide Area (LPWA) network aimed at enhancing IoT connectivity.

Conventional technology is too costly to promote ubiquitous IoT connectivity. Short-range solutions like Bluetooth have shortcomings such as their need for expensive infrastructure and maintenance, while cellular connectivity provides longer range but requires each device to have its own SIM card, adding to the cost. The unit cost needs to come down to achieve mass saturation of connected devices.

Rather than relying on streaming technology, the Sigfox system employs low-power transmitters attached to devices that send snippets of information (datagrams) to the cloud at fixed durations, usually every 10 minutes or so, or whenever a change occurs. Sigfox has installed a network of antennas around Taiwan that are able to pick up the information transmitted by the device, transform it into a traditional IP packet, and route that through its network directly to the customer backend.

Sigfox doesn’t manufacture the radio transmitters but instead offers its technology to manufacturers such as Texas Instruments to enable an open ecosystem. They install the access stations (routers and antennas) on rooftops all around Taiwan. This is long distance technology, so they don’t have to install too many antennas. So far, the Sigfox network is able to cover over 90% of Taiwan’s area.

More Flexibility for Experimentation

Infrastructure is an ecosystem, and it’s not possible for one company to create a whole ecosystem. While Sigfox is pioneering nation-wide IoT connectivity in Taiwan, it will surely be joined by others in the future. The government is currently accepting bids for a new round of smart-city project applications, with the winners to receive government funding for their initiatives. The bidders might influence the government to introduce the regulatory sandbox which would certainly allow more flexibility for experimentation with innovative business models.

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