GSMA chief regrets roaming flap

GSM Association chairman Craig Ehrlich, who steps down from his position at the end of the year, says he'll be leaving the industry association in far better shape than when he started, and has no regrets - apart from the roaming-prices debate.

Ehrlich was appointed interim chair and later elected to the position in 2001, at which time the GSMA was more like a standards body, concentrating on technical issues rather than commercial strategies.

"I wanted to change it to a proper world-class trade association that focuses on commercialization and strategy, rather than some Athenian democracy getting into the nitty-gritty of the technology like a lot of standards bodies do - where you have 500 people at a plenary arguing over whether to use the word "˜it' vs "˜its'," he told telecomasia.net. on the sidelines of the Mobile Asia Congress in Macau.

"We needed to have a strong governing body, we needed a strong senior management team and we needed better funding. All of that has been accomplished. So in that sense I feel that this is a better organization than when I started," he said.

However, Ehrlich immediately qualified that statement: "I don't want to be cocky about this, because we're definitely not a perfect organization. I've always pushed for world-class excellence and we're still not there in part because sometimes, certain groups act outside the GSMA structure."

Ehrlich said his biggest regret during his time as chairman was the clash over roaming prices with European Commission member Vivian Reding.

"I regret the GSMA could not take the lead on that issue," he said. "I don't think the industry responded as quickly as it should have to bring roaming rates down, and how we handled the relationship with the European Commission wasn't the best. That's an ongoing problem."

Ehrlich said he understood that sometimes operators have to put themselves first before the GSMA when it comes to running their business. "But my job has been to find common ground, and it was difficult for me and [GSMA CEO] Rob [Conway] to lead on this because unless most of the board is behind us on something, we get cut off. I also argued at the time that we needed to treat this as a global issue, not just a European issue, but some of our European board members didn't agree."

Looking ahead, Ehrlich said the biggest challenge facing the GSMA is sorting out spectrum issues for LTE by convincing regulators to harmonize spectrum allocations and make use of so-called "digital dividend" frequencies created by broadcasters making the move from analog to digital.

"I've given direction to the board, as well as to Rob and the senior team, to focus a huge amount of effort on this. It's a huge challenge. If we can achieve it, it's "˜game over'. It's a major hurdle but I think we can achieve most of what we need."

Shorter-term, the GSMA will be keeping an eye on the current global economic meltdown, although Ehrlich is optimistic in terms of its impact on mobile.

"The good news is we're one the few industries that will grow, just not as fast as we have.

 

But our revenues will still be up, and margins can probably stay close to where they are," he said.

The GSMA can also use mobile's relative stability, including the industry's continuing investment in both 2G and 3G infrastructure, to bring regulators on-side to help encourage operators to grow their business, or at least do less to shrink it.

"This is an opportunity for us to go to ministers and regulators and point out how much we're spending and how many jobs we're creating, and that we don't need special favors or tax breaks, but please don't create disincentives by taxing us like crazy," he said.

After his term ends, Ehrlich will continue to serve on the board of the GSMC, the association's conference arm. His replacement will be elected in three weeks, he said.

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