With 500M subscribers, HSPA growth quickly soars

Consumers may be turning to Wi-Fi in the face of capped data plans, but that isn’t stopping the growth of the HSPA cellular network subscribers. The GSMA, a wireless trade organization, noted Wednesday that HSPA subscriptions will hit 500 million globally this month, and it expects that number to hit 1 billion by the end of 2012.

This growth rate, fueled by an increasing number of connected devices and apps to run on them, means the 3G standard is the fastest growing wireless technology in history. Although faster LTE networks now have 1 million subscribers, HSPA will continue to outpace LTE for at least the next five years.

In its press release today, the GSMA says the HSPA take-up rate is 10 times faster than it was for 2G networks back in the 1990s. Of course, that decade was very different from present day. Today, smartphones are eating up bandwidth thanks to online video, picture sharing, social networking and of course, the downloading of media and applications. So many of the currently available apps are bite-sized chunks of functionality sprinkled with the web for a flavorful, but connected experience.

Aside from the billions of mobile app downloads — 44 billion are expected by 2016 — helping to drive 3G adoption are the devices and networks themselves, per the GSMA:

More than 3,100 devices support HSPA and there are now 350 live HSPA networks across 132 countries worldwide. Furthermore, 88 HSPA networks across 50 countries have been upgraded to HSPA+ with a further 52 network upgrades planned. HSPA+ offers peak download speeds of 84Mbps, potentially rising to 168Mbps if deployed in wider spectrum bands.

From a network operator standpoint, this means a continued rise in average revenue per user (ARPU) for data as voice minutes lose value and eventually will become just another form of data on the faster networks. But to keep data ARPU rising, individual carriers will have to continue their network investments, else run the risk of consumers defecting to competitors.

Operator investments in HSPA, HSPA+ and LTE networks are expected to top $100 billion through 2015 in order to keep up with greater number of devices consuming a growing amount of mobile broadband. Less investment is likely in existing EVDO networks as the few large operators that opted for the 3G technology are moving now towards the GSM-based technologies such as HSPA and LTE.

Here in the U.S., Verizon Wireless (s VZ) will surely maintain its EVDO footprint for several years as it transitions consumers and devices to its new LTE network. Globally, however, the lion’s share of investment dollars will continue to be in HSPA technologies until LTE supplants it as the new king of speed and coverage.