Southwest now offering Wi-Fi connectivity from gate to gate

Everyone from business travelers to sulky teens let out a collective cheer last month when the Federal Aviation Administration lifted its ban on electronic device use during takeoff and landing. But for the truly committed connected traveler there’s still been one problem.

From the moment the flight attendants close the aircraft door and tell you to the shut off your cellular radios to the point the airplane is aloft and the airplane’s Wi-Fi network turns on, there’s a gap where you lose connectivity. But starting this week, Southwest Airlines(s luv) is lifting that restriction. You can access its inflight networks the moment you take your seat on the majority of its planes.

The reason Southwest can provide this continuous connectivity is due to the nature of its inflight network. Market leader Gogo(s gogo), which serves United(s ual), Delta(s dal) and American and half-a-dozen other airlines, uses a ground-based CDMA network pointed at the sky. Southwest uses Row 44’s satellite-based service pointed at the ground. So Southwest’s planes can receive signals even while parked at the gate and taxiing on the runway.

This probably isn’t that big deal to most travelers. Only a small, but steadily growing, percentage of customers actually use inflight Wi-Fi — around 6 percent on Gogo’s flights — because of the costs. And those who do tap inflight Wi-Fi are often doing it with a laptop, which aren’t allowed out during takeoff and landing anyway. But there will be some people – we all know who they are – that can’t stand to lose connectivity for a second. Southwest’s Wi-Fi prices are more reasonable than most ($8 per device for an all-day pass), but you figure if you’re going to buy the service you might as well milk as much out of it as possible.

If Gogo’s airline partners wanted to match Southwest, they probably could. Gogo already uses satellite signals to connect overseas flights, and its next generation network scheduled to go online in 2014 will combine satellite and ground-based links to provide much faster connections.