"Mobile data growth will hold up well," said Mark Lowenstein, managing director of consulting firm Mobile Ecosystem. "The rate of growth might slow somewhat as consumers delay handset upgrades, which drive data sales, (but) text messaging will continue to be robust. It's seen as a relatively affordable luxury."
The big four have hiked fees for sending text messages. Wireless phone users now pay on average 20 cents per message, up from 10 cents two years ago.
"Through the third quarter, carriers have still reported strong, double-digit wireless data growth in the face of dire financial conditions," said John Fletcher, an analyst at SNL Kagan. "The world is collapsing around us, but people are still waiting in line for smart phones. But this is the biggest recession (in) the 25-year history of the wireless industry. In a recession, people are more likely to keep their (current) phone longer. So we have to see how smart phone demand holds up."
Wireless firms offer buckets of text messages along with voice minutes in rate plans. While game and music downloads are rising fast, text messaging still accounts for more than one-third of wireless data revenue.
Smart phones, which offer e-mail, Internet access and more, have been a big driver of wireless data growth. Users are more likely to buy data plans along with calling minutes if they purchase a snazzy smart phone such as Apple's AAPL iPhone.
"The trend has been for (wireless) carriers to mandate that consumers get a data plan with those devices," said Ross Rubin, an analyst at research firm NPD Group. "But it is going to be challenging for carriers to make the case to voice-centric consumers that they should upgrade, given the economy. (Data plans) are a significant jump in monthly bills."
AT&T's iPhone data service plans start at $30 a month.
AT&T, Verizon and Sprint now get more than $12 per month per subscriber, on average, from data services. That's almost double what they got just two years ago, says Seth Wallis-Jones, an analyst at Global Insight.
T-Mobile USA averages about $3 less per customer, but it's been slower to roll out a 3G network. It might get a boost as the provider of services for the new Google GOOG Android G1 smart phone, made by Taiwan's HTC.
"It's difficult to forecast what will happen to data revenues," Wallis-Jones said. "There are a slew of new devices that are data-dependent. But with the economy, consumers are likely to pull back on services. If they don't have a data addiction habit yet, they're less likely to sign on to a new service."
He adds that besides smart phones, wireless firms are also doing better selling services via data cards plugged into laptop computers. In the third quarter, AT&T reported an 83% increase in the number of data-card subscriptions from a year earlier, he said.
Wireless firms have lowered flat-rate prices for unlimited data usage, boosting demand for laptop cards, analysts say. Leap Wireless LEAP sells monthly plans for $40, while most other carriers are around $60, says Rubin.
A Goldman Sachs report estimates that U.S. wireless firms' annual revenue from laptop connections will double to $10 billion by 2012. In Europe, too, more laptops are connecting to 3G networks for wireless services, analysts say.
Lowenstein, though, cautions that demand for laptop data cards could take a hit from the economy.
"Although there is tremendous room for growth still for broadband access plans, the next rung of the market is more in the 'nice to have' than 'need to have' category," he said. "We might see some lowering of pricing in order to stimulate demand."
Consumers will likely pull back spending on music, ring tones and game downloads as well as other services that involve per-usage fees, analysts say. And the economy also could pinch demand for mobile video, analysts say.