3.5G is driving mobile broadband growth around the globe, with a rapid increase in the number of commercial HSDPA networks being rolled out.
The number of commercial HSDPA networks launched worldwide grew by 69 percent last year, according to a survey by the Global Mobile Suppliers Association (GSA) — a GSM/3G supplier association.
There are now 166 commercial HSDPA networks in 75 countries and a further 38 networks are committed to rollouts, which will bump the total to 204 HSDPA networks in 89 countries, said the GSA.
Commercial HSDPA networks are widely available in Western Europe (61 networks), Asia Pacific (35), Eastern Europe (34), the Middle East and Africa (20) and the Americas and the Caribbean (16).
HSDPA, or high-speed downlink packet access, is a beefed up flavour of 3G capable of delivering downlink speeds of up to a theoretical maximum of 7.2Mbps. Typical speeds achieved are between 800Kbps and 3Mbps.
The GSA said the rise of 3.5G is driving mobile broadband services globally, adding that HSPA (referring to both HSDPA and HSUPA) operators around the world are reporting strong subscription growth and increased profitability.
But it's not just network numbers: speed is also on the up, the survey found.
Almost two-thirds (62 percent) of existing commercial HSDPA networks support downlink speeds of 3.6Mbps or more, while more than a fifth (21 percent) support the peak downlink speed of 7.2Mbps.
HSUPA (high-speed uplink packet) is rarer than HSDPA, with just 26 commercial networks launched in 22 countries. But there is evidence momentum is building here too, as all these launches occurred last year, with the vast majority taking place in the past six months.
The report added that almost 60 percent of HSPA operators combine with GSM/EDGE to bolster their network coverage.
Thomas Husson, senior analyst at Jupiter Research, backs the view that HSDPA is driving mobile broadband globally, though he said the market is still in its infancy. "It clearly is the logical next step in mobile broadband evolution and in Western Europe it will gain significant adoption moving forward," he told ZDNet.co.uk's sister site, silicon.com.
Meanwhile, rival tech mobile WiMax is not likely to be a threat to 3.5G in Western Europe until at least the end of the decade, according to Husson.
He pointed to the fact many HSDPA rollouts can be achieved by a software upgrade to existing 3G networks, giving 3.5G a headstart over WiMax, which requires dedicated network infrastructure. At present there are just two commercial mobile WiMax networks in the world, both in Korea.
Rising sales of HSPA-enabled mobiles — helped by more-generous-than-expected operator subsidies of the hardware — are helping to drive the 3.5G market in Western Europe, according to Husson. Most new 3G phones will be HSPA-enabled moving forward, he said.
Husson added: "The launch of HSUPA will enable customers to upload content from their handsets to the networks which will be increasingly important with the growing adoption of user-generated content and the rise of mobile social networking."
The GSA website features maps that show the worldwide spread of 3.5G, EDGE and 3G/WCDMA networks.