There is a revolution going on right now in the world of in-flight entertainment (IFE). And it’s all to do with how content such as movies, TV shows and music gets delivered to the passenger.

Traditional embedded IFE hardware systems deliver content to overhead, personal TV (pTV) and seat back screens via miles of wires hidden from view. The complexity of these systems makes them prone to system failure – who hasn’t been on a plane, settled down to watch a film and then been confronted by a flickering blank screen for hours on end?

These systems are also very heavy which is a major issue for airlines looking for fuel efficiencies wherever possible. Add in the expense of the latest embedded systems at up to $5m per aircraft and it’s obvious to see why airlines are looking for alternatives.

Enter wireless IFE. Lower in weight, cheaper to buy and easier and quicker to install – it’s no wonder airlines are migrating to this new technology. The films, TV programmes and other content is delivered to the passenger in their seat wirelessly. There is an onboard server at the head end of the aircraft that allows passengers to connect via an airline provided system or via their own device such as laptop, tablet or smartphone. This wireless IFE system is essentially an intranet on a plane – also known in the industry as a ‘walled garden service’.

There are three wireless IFE models currently being tried and tested by airlines. The first is where the server streams content to the passenger’s own device such an iPad or iPhone. This is currently seen as a late release solution as the major Hollywood studios are obviously nervous about passengers leaving the plane with the latest Blockbusters on their personal devices. So the content package is likely to include classic films (those now on DVD) as well as popular TV shows and music.

This particular model is being followed by Southwest Airlines who will start charging passengers $5 per movie and $2 per TV show in 2012, using Row 44’s wireless IFE solution. Other airlines already offering passengers a similar pay per view wireless entertainment experience include American Airlines and Delta who are both using Gogo’s ‘Vision’ wireless IFE product.

The second option is to stream content from the server to an airline provided device. This is currently being trialled by Air Asia on their Kualar Lumpur to London route. Passengers can rent a Samsung Galaxy tablet and enjoy movies, music and e-magazines. This type of solution allows latest release movies to be made available to passengers as the airline has full control of the IFE device.

The third model is for content to be streamed wirelessly to an embedded seat-back IFE system – another early movie release solution. Virgin America is deploying this model using Lufthansa Systems’ ‘Boardconnect’ wireless IFE system. Movies will cost between and $5 and $7 and TV shows $2.

Wireless IFE is in its infancy though and not without teething problems. One issue concerns bandwidth restrictions meaning that not all passengers onboard a plane with wireless IFE available would currently be able to view content simultaneously.

In-seat power limits are also a concern. Most planes simply do not have enough capacity to provide adequate battery life if high numbers of passengers wish to power up their smartphones, laptops and tablets.

Nevertheless, the wireless streaming of in-flight entertainment is here to stay and many more airlines are sure to move to this exciting new technology in the coming months and years.