5G and Beyond

Delta flight attendants help highlight a 5G future

AT&T and Delta Air Lines announced they plan to equip roughly 19,000 flight attendants with 5G-capable iPhones.

The announcement by itself isn't that much of a surprise. After all, as 9to5Mac pointed out, British Airways gave all 15,000 of its cabin crew members an iPhone XR in 2019. And Apple and IBM worked with United Airlines to distribute iPhones and iPads to its employees in 2017.

However, Delta hinted at a new application for its flight attendants that helps to highlight the 5G opportunity that network operators like AT&T have long touted: "A paper-based process today, flight attendants will soon have up to the minute digital catering inventory and be able to quickly locate items without opening a single door, using the camera on iPhone 12 and augmented reality to visualize where items are stowed," Delta said.

According to Delta, this all helps make it "the first 5G-equipped global airline."

What's really noteworthy about Delta's announcement, though, is that it's a real-world deployment of an application that's actually useful to a large workforce, and it appears to rely in part on the speed provided by 5G.

Network operators for years have suggested that speedy 5G networks will eventually create a wide range of new applications and services for mobile workers, consumers and others. But so far most of those offerings have been developed in labs for demonstration purposes only. For example, Verizon also this week announced it would install a 5G network in GE's research campus to "provide the perfect testbed for GE's research team to build the next-generation, real-time solutions that will transform every industry."

That's what makes Delta's announcement so significant: The value of being able to quickly scan the contents of an airplane storage locker is simple, clear and obvious, to the point that Delta has distributed it to thousands of employees.

Of course, it's still early days in the 5G industry. Indeed, most 5G networks today – including those from AT&T – aren't much faster than 4G networks. Further, 5G operators generally cannot yet offer fancy bells and whistles like network slicing to enterprise customers like Delta, potentially leaving the company's flight attendants to share the same network as their passengers.

But that may all change in the months and years to come. And that may pave the way for more simple, useful services like the one Delta is implementing. It remains to be seen whether operators will ultimately be able to cash in on their 5G investments, but Delta's embrace of 5G might be a harbinger of a wider interest in the technology among enterprises.

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Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

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