Mobile data enthusiasts can take heart from the first quarter results from AT&T and Verizon. Even in the teeth of a severe recession, both the U.S.’s leading operators have reported strong growth in mobile data revenues.

AT&T generated a 39% year-on-year increase in wireless data revenues to $3.2 billion, while Verizon Wireless’ data revenue in the first quarter was up 37% to $3.6 billion on a like-for-like basis.

While the growing popularity of text messaging in the U.S. and the rising usage of mobile Internet access via smart phones and laptops is widely-recognised, there is another story tucked away in Verizon’s figures – growing demand for picture and video messaging.

During the quarter, Verizon Wireless’s 80 million or so customers sent nearly 2.1 billion picture/video messages – that is around two a week for each and every customer and almost double the 1.1 billion sent in the same quarter of 2008.

AT&T doesn’t report picture messaging usage, but other operators are seeing very strong growth. In 2008, China Mobile’s revenues from MMS rose 84% to 2.88 billion yuan ($422 million).

When the service was first launched in Europe earlier this decade in a blaze of hype, sending picture messages was a lottery. Technical glitches and a lack of interoperability across networks and handsets meant the service mostly bombed. Moreover, many commentators assumed that MMS would soon be superseded by mobile email, instant messaging and other IP-based services.

But the rapid growth at Verizon and China Mobile suggests MMS has put many of its teething problems behind it and could yet be a major contributor to operators’ revenues.