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GSMA CEO departing as industry prepares for next big technology transition

With 12 years under his belt, Rob Conway has followed every major transformation in wireless save the transition from analog

After 12 years at the helm of the wireless industry’s largest trade association, GSMA CEO Rob Conway is stepping down on Sept 1, handing the reins over to a new chief executive just as the wireless industry undergoes its next generational transformation.

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In a GSMA statement (Briefing Room: GSMA announces departure of CEO), Conway said during his tenure he is most proud of the growth of the association’s flagship tradeshow Mobile World Congress and the creation of the GSMA’s Development Fund, which sought to use wireless technologies to connect people in the third world and at the bottom of the economic pyramid. “After 12 years I feel very good that I am leaving the GSMA in the best possible position to address the challenges and opportunities ahead,” Conway said in a statement.

The GSMA board, led by the Telecom Italia Group, is starting the search process for a new CEO, though the GSMA did not say if they plan to have the role filled by Conway’s departure date this fall.

Conway joined the GSMA after the industry made its first big technological leap from analog to digital GSM networks, but he’s presided over the GSMA during a period of rapid change in the industry, which witnessed the birth of mobile data, the advent of 3G and the most recent leap to mobile broadband high-speed packet access plus (HSPA+), long-term evolution and WiMAX networks. Not everything was placid during those years. The GSMA was front and center in the technology wars that split the world’s operators into two camps, GSM and CDMA, but the GSMA also played a big role in the two sides’ reconciliation. When Verizon Wireless joined the GSMA in June of 2010 (Unfiltered: Pigs have flown: VZW takes seat on GSMA board), the technology wars came to a close as VZW led most of the world’s CDMA operator to LTE, the GSM community’s 4G standard.

But the industry has experienced other turmoil coming from outside of the traditional wireless community. The launch of Apple’s iPhone in 2007 kick-started the mobile data revolution, creating an enormous demand for mobile broadband but also bringing thousands of new media, Internet and consumer electronics brands into the industry. As the wireless industry expanded, operators and vendors ran up against companies like Google, Apple and Facebook offering their services directly to the consumer. The industry had grown for everyone, but the operators’ dominance of the industry was reduced. That trend was in evidence at wireless trade shows like CTIA Wireless, which saw their attendance level out and even shrink during the bad economy as many of the new wireless players sought venues like the Consumer Electronics Showcase, which wasn’t so carrier dominated.

The GSMA’s show Mobile World Congress, however, weathered that storm admirably and continued to grow. Unlike CTIA and other country-specific carrier associations, the GSMA isn’t a lobbying group. Though it’s dominated by the carriers and have a public policy arms, it’s primarily a technology and standards organization, which allowed it to open its arms to the new wireless players the way policy-focused carrier organizations couldn’t. Though it never became a consumer show, MWC was able to attract mobile developers en masse and even get Google to deliver a keynote, allowing it to bill itself as the trade show for the wireless industry as whole.

Despite the GSMA’s larger scope, chances are the GSMA’s next CEO will come from the industry’s core membership, just as Conway came from Motorola. But the GSMA’s board may elect to look outside of that pool of carriers and vendors for its next leader, considering how much the focus of the industry is shifting from infrastructure to services and applications.

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© 2014 Penton Media Inc.

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