The number of commercial 3.5G networks--also known as High-Speed Downlink Packet Access, or HSDPA, networks--launched worldwide grew by 69 percent last year, according to a survey by the Global Mobile Suppliers Association (GSA), which represents suppliers of GSM/3G network services.
There are now 166 commercial HSDPA networks in 75 countries. An additional 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), Southeast Asia (35), Eastern Europe (34), the Middle East and Africa (20), and the Americas and the Caribbean (16).
HSDPA is a beefed up variant of 3G network technology 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 operators of High-Speed Packet Access, or HSPA--referring to both)--networks around the world are reporting strong subscription growth and increased profitability.
But it's not just network numbers: downlink speeds also are on the rise, 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 is rarer than HSDPA, with just 26 commercial networks launched in 22 countries. But there is evidence that 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 the GSM (Global System for Mobile communications) and EDGE (Enhanced Data GSM Environment) network standards 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 Silicon.com.
Meanwhile,, 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--aided 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.
"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," Husson added.
Natasha Lomas of Silicon.com reported from London.