Much is made in the media of certain mobile operators' difficulties in providing sufficient network capacity to handle the growing demand for data. Users of devices such as the Apple iPhone are often cited as the greatest source of that demand.

The service launch of iPhone MMS was delayed several times, with exclusive carrier AT&T citing the need to make sure its network was ready.

Senior ABI Research analyst Jeff Orr disagreed. "In fact, that's a distraction," he said. "In general, laptops and netbooks with embedded or attached modems contribute a significantly greater amount of traffic to 3G networks than smartphones do."

The proliferation of netbooks and other mobile devices sporting ARM-based processors will only exacerbate this data demand, which Orr describes as "not a tidal wave, but a rising tide.

Operators are working out their strategies for capacity expansion based on today's best expectations of future demand from data-centric devices. The main issues revolve around backhaul, followed by increased 3G and 4G BTS deployments."

Earlier this year, O2 chief executive Ronan Dunne said that he had been disappointed with the performance of O2's network since the summer, explaining that the company was struggling to cope with the rising number of mobile apps, particularly those associated with Apple's iPhone. He apologised to customers for the problems they'd been facing.

O2 and AT&T's network woes stem from having to deploy new base stations for 3G while selling a hugely popular handset that subscribers love to use for data, said In-Stat infrastructure analyst Allen Nogee.