As CDMA dies in Latin America, 3G drives a data boom

Mobile data is picking up momentum in Latin America as the number of 3G connections in the region doubled in 2011, according to a new report from Wireless Intelligence. Operators in Latin and South America are shutting down their CDMA networks, replacing them with the UMTS systems used by the GSM world, and even making their first moves to LTE. That could produce a huge surge in mobile data use over the next few years similar to what the U.S. and Canada experienced after the launch of HSPA and the first 3G iPhone.

At the end of 2011, the total number of 3G subscribers hit 100 million, accounting for 15 percent of all mobile connections, according to the report. That huge uptick in data connections makes Latin America the second-fastest growing global region, just behind the Middle East/Africa market. The region also passed 100 percent penetration in 2011, which means many customers are now sporting multiple devices.

Wireless Intelligence predicts mobile data adoption will only accelerate. The monthly run rate of 3 million 3G additions in 2011 is increasing to 4 million this year. By 2016, 3G and 4G connections will account for just under 50 percent of total subscriptions. Two operators, Columbia’s UNE and Uruguay’s Ancel, launched commercial LTE networks in 2011, while AT&T(s T) extended its LTE network to Puerto Rico. The research firm also counted 12 new HSPA+ networks going up in the region since June.

Total CDMA connections saw a huge drop, falling from 6 percent of total connections two years ago to just 2 percent as of the new year. In December, Telefonica(s TEF) shut down its CDMA networks in Ecuador completely, but the global operator will deal its biggest blow to CDMA in June when it packs up Brazilian operator Vivo’s 2G network, the region’s largest.