South Korea's IoT in full swing: From water meters to AI-powered smart buildings

In South Korea's small towns and big cities, the Internet of Things (IoT) is changing everything from utilities to subways to buildings as more municipalities and companies capitalise on new computing and network technologies.
Written by Cho Mu-Hyun, Contributing Writer

Gochang is a relatively small, rural county in South Korea in North Jeolla Province, 260 kilometres south of the capital Seoul. It borders the Yellow Sea to its west with a 70-kilometre coastal line, and, by all accounts, it's quite a sight. The county has a very small population of just 58,181 as of March 2018, according to the Ministry of Interior, in an area of 606.90 square kilometres. That's a slightly larger area than Seoul, which has a population of 9.86 million as of 2017 or around 20 percent of the country's 50 million.

It's not easy for county officials and sensors, especially metermen checking water usage via monthly home visits, to get around. If there is water leakage, it takes one to two months to confirm. The problem is exacerbated by the delayed response. And then there is the occasional dispute over the bill with residents.

Enter smart water meters -- digital meters that allow the county to monitor and read water usage remotely in real time without the need to send personnel.

Gochang is the first in South Korea to deploy smart water meters county-wide in one go. Deployment began last year in collaboration with Australia-based IoT firm Freestyle Technology, which supplied all the necessary equipment, from the smart meters to repeaters. Installation was completed in 24,104 homes in December.

"We approached it as a welfare project for residents," said Kim Sang-ah, manager at Gochang Waterworks, the water and sewage enterprise of the county, and manager of the project. "The meters allowed us to accurately relay information to residents on their usage and bill, which were one of the main complaints we received previously. Another is preventing damages from leakages. Cost stemming from water leakages fell 19 percent in March from a year ago."


Gochang can now view water usage by homes in the whole county. Image: Freestyle Technology

It wasn't just about convenience; there were also social benefits.

"The biggest gain, we think, is increased safety for the residents, especially the elderly. Water is always being used, daily. We find households that have not used water for 48 hours and we contact them or their relatives. Residents gave the greatest positive feedback for this," Kim said.

South Korea has one of the highest suicide rates in the world; the elderly and socially marginalised are especially vulnerable. In April, a 41-year-old mother and her 4-year-old daughter were found dead in their apartment at neighbouring Jeungpyeong County, North Chungcheong Province, in a double suicide. It was later revealed that the pair died months ago, with their water bills unpaid for months.

A remote water reader solution like those now in Gochang could have prevented the tragedy, Kim said.

Younger generations move to the cities for better jobs; their elderly parents usually stay behind in their rural hometowns. The distance is a cause of worry for many families.

"We see, going forward, more and more IoT projects being deployed all over the county, which will be good public policy," Kim said. "We are mulling over a smart streetlamp project that will use the same repeaters that we use for the water meters."

'IoT is an irreversible trend in utilities'

South Korea's towns, counties, and cities are increasingly eyeing IoT adoption in infrastructure and unities, especially in water, which along with roads, require local governments to build, manage, and supply by Korean law. That provides an incentive in a democracy for municipalities to do good public work.

Gimje City, a North Jeolla Province neighbour of Gochang, has also begun deployment of smart water meters supplied by Freestyle Technology. The city will start with two towns numbering 2,290 households.

"We had some problems with old buildings with outdated water pipes that are especially vulnerable to leakages in the winter," said Song Jin-hee, officer for accounting at Gimje City's water and sewage department.

"We are taking a step-by-step approach, run annually, in installation. Today, technologies and cost are changing so fast. We want to keep our options open," Song said. "IoT, we think, is an irreversible trend. In the long-run it will especially contribute in alleviating the burden of cost for residents, because we can use the same equipment network, base stations, and repeaters that we use for water to control other utilities and public services, driving down the cost."


Gimje is also deploying smart water meters like Gochang seen here. Image: Gochang County

It was the municipalities in the mountainous and high-altitude Gangwon Province, the northeastern most region of South Korea, that first eyed smart water meters. Pyeongchang, which hosted the Winter Olympic Games earlier this year, was one of the first to deploy smart water meters in the country.

There was real demand due to random pressure depending on area. A myriad of altitudes has made water and sewage management much more difficult compared to other counties and cities. Starting in 2007, Pyeongchang deployed the meters block by block and achieved 80 percent coverage by 2014.

Taebaek City and Yeongwol County of the same province are also moving to install smart water meters, county officials said. Jaecheon City of North Chungcheong Province was also an early adopter, installing digital water meters from 2009 to 2012, which cost $3 million. The equipment used is likely not as sophisticated as recent products, officials said.

Besides water, electricity and gas are also seeing more IoT applications. The most ambitious so far, however, is likely the state-run Korea Electric Power Corporation (KEPCO)'s Advanced Metering Infrastructure project. The corporation began the 1.7 trillion won -- around $1.5 billion -- project in 2013 and the goal is to install around 22.5 million intelligent electricity meters in households with complete national coverage by 2020. KEPCO's regional offices will monitor electricity usage in real time.

Scaling upward: From local to global

Advances in transmission technology and computing power in the past decade have been instrumental in the increased application of IoT in utilities and infrastructure areas, according to Song of Gimje.

"These concepts are not new, and have been attempted years ago, but many were canned because the low transmission accuracy rate. If you remember back in the feature phone days, sometimes you would get texts minutes or hours later than when they were sent. It was the same with this equipment," Song said.

"But today, on average vendors have very high accuracy rates. Tests for our smart water meter showed an accuracy of 98.9 percent, above the 98 percent we required for the order."

South Korea is one of the most wired places in the world and boasts the best networks, making it an attractive test-bed for IoT for both local and global firms. The country rolled out a 4G LTE network in 2011, and completed national coverage in 2012. The rollout of IoT-dedicated networks by telcos with more competitive costs has also made IoT projects more alluring for local governments.

The networks have allowed deployment to scale. Daegu, Korea's fourth-largest city with a population of 2.5 million, has been one of the most ambitious in adopting IoT. SK Telecom invested 90 billion won to build a city-wide LoRa network. The city already boasts smart LED streetlamps, smart crosswalks, CCTVs, smart parking that checks parking availability, and number plates that capitalize on the infrastructure. It also allowed new businesses: SK Telecom launched a solar power usage reading service based on its LoRa network.


South Korean telcos like SK Telecom have deployed LoRa networks, locally and abroad, allowing IoT companies to leverage them for more integrated services. Image: SK Telecom

Diverse applications

High Tech is an IoT company specialising in protecting cultural heritage. Based in Gangwon Province, the firm last year worked with the local government to install low-power displacement sensors that detect displacements, humidity, temperature, and tremors on four cultural sites. It provides its own LoRa network and does not require the installation of electric and communication wires on the ancient buildings. This is important, as most ancient buildings are a fire hazard due to a large prevalence of wood.

The sensors are not mains-powered, but have batteries that last one to two years depending on usage. Data is sent to the command centre every five to 30 minutes for monitoring. The data allows inspectors to find damage and detect possible damage from natural disasters or ageing in order to apply appropriate measures to protect the sites.

"Most detection tools used in cultural heritage sites use wired detectors that damage them directly over time, or may inadvertently do so," said High Tech CEO Choi Jong Un. "By applying IoT, governments can protect their sensitive cultural heritage sites as well as save cost in maintenance."


High Tech's sensors detect angle of cultural heritage to monitor displacements. Image: High Tech

NTELS is an IoT firm that offers an integrated building management system that allows the monitoring of energy consumption and safety status of buildings. The company is partnered with Suwon City and the solution is applied to 100 public buildings. Suwon's city hall can manage the entire roaster while individual buildings can also monitor their own. Access is divided to three security clearance levels.

Artificial intelligence (AI) was applied to the monitoring system so that it can predict energy usage and become more efficient as more data is collected. The tenants of the buildings themselves, not just the IT managers, can access the system within their designated areas to turn on or off lights, gas, and other utilities.

"In smart building business, connectivity is no longer a differentiator, because that is a given," said Park Chang-soo, general manager at NTELS' IoT development team. "So there needs to be added value such as AI atop high integration. We also differ in that we also offer tenants control over their workspace IoT."

The issue of cost, regulation, and privacy

Despite the increased adoption and innovation, hurdles remain. The relatively successful deployment and coverage of Gochang relied largely on the cost-benefit ratio. According to county officials, the project cost some $5 million. Larger municipalities find the cost less attractive as they attempt to scale. Network costs have declined as well over the years, thanks to IoT-dedicated networks, but for many municipalities it is still a strain on their budgets.

"No-one disputes the benefits of deploying IoT for utilities. But the biggest obstacle is and remains cost," said Kim Jong-hoon, an officer of Korea Environment Corporation (K-eco), a subsidiary agency to the Ministry of Environment, working in its regional office at Pyeongchang and collaborating with the local government.

K-eco, in collaboration with the local government and telco LG Uplus, has been testing 100 units of water leakage sensors since last year.

"Among officials there is an expectation that prices will fall as early as the second half of this year or the first half of next year. But it remains to be seen," he said.

Individual municipalities also look for IoT portfolios specific to their needs, and the right product wasn't easy to find, Kim added.

"Market demand will automatically lead to competitive prices" said High Tech CEO Choi.

The biggest obstacle for the companies has been regulations that limit spectrum use depending on industry. Government buildings, and agencies such as the fire department, use their own networks and frequencies.

"It would be easier to deploy smart building solutions like ours if we had access to those networks," said NTELS' Park.

Standardisation was also an issue.

"What constitutes IoT can be very different country per country," said Park. "We wish there was more coordination between governments. There also needs to be more dialogue between governments and companies."

Privacy, or security, is more complicated picture. For example, Gimje cited the privacy as one of the main reasons of rolling out smart water meters. There are concerns that these devices are vulnerable to hacking; KEPCO last year faced intense scrutiny for their digital electricity meters that allegedly had incompetent security within the chips.

But the overall outlook remains optimistic for many.

"I can't say whether it will be one year, or three years, or 10 years from now," said K-eco's Kim. "But we are getting to a place where IoT will be massively deployed eventually."


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