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As head of CWTA, Bernard Lord has seen the development of a fractious relationship between members and with government.

Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

During his eight years at the helm of the wireless industry's main trade and lobby group, Bernard Lord has borne witness to an explosion of mobile data usage thanks to what he calls Canadians' "love affair" with their phones.

"The transition has been from what was traditionally a voice tech eight years ago to what is primarily a data- and video-service now," he says, joking that while we carry portable computers everywhere, the added bonus is they can also make phone calls.

Since 2008, when Mr. Lord became president and chief executive officer of the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association (CWTA), the number of wireless subscribers in Canada has increased by almost 40 per cent to 29.4 million, up from 21.5 million. And Cisco forecasts that mobile data traffic in Canada will grow by 600 per cent from 2015 to 2020.

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"Our objective is to empower Canadians to use wireless to do more," Mr. Lord says, adding that to make sure the country's wireless networks can accommodate that, the CWTA advocates for policies that ensure access to adequate wireless airwaves (known as spectrum), more sites for antennas and other radio equipment, lower fees and reduced regulation.

Mr. Lord, who is also the former premier of New Brunswick, is leaving the organization at the end of August to take up a post as CEO of Medavie, a health company in his hometown of Moncton. The CWTA board is beginning the search for his replacement.

Aside from policy work, the CWTA is also responsible for co-ordinating a number of services and programs related to the wireless industry, such as device recycling, wireless Amber Alerts and working with the Mobile Giving Foundation to support text-to-donate initiatives.

Those efforts take up the majority of the group's time, Mr. Lord said in an interview after his departure was announced in mid-June. But he admits it is the lobbying and government relations work that gets the most attention.

At times, the CWTA gets more attention than it would like for that role and it can be tense when its members' interests conflict.

For example, in 2013, the three then-independent startup carriers – Wind Mobile, Mobilicity and Public Mobile (all of which have since been sold to large Canadian telecom companies) – announced they were leaving the organization, complaining it was biased in favour of the incumbents, Rogers Communications Inc., Telus Corp. and BCE Inc.

As the summer unfolded that year, the Big Three teamed up in a public relations campaign protesting the rules the government had established for a public auction of wireless airwaves. Facing the prospect that U.S. giant Verizon Communications Inc. could swoop in and take advantage of rules meant to help small players, the trio complained loudly and the federal government responded with its own advertising, an extraordinary campaign slamming the Canadian industry.

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Verizon never ventured north, having other concerns at the time including a $130-billion (U.S.) deal to buy out Vodafone Group's interest in its wireless division, after which it said it was no longer interested in Canada.

But after months of inflamed rhetoric, there was bad blood all around. Telus, which at the time still held out hope it might one day acquire Mobilicity, said in early 2014 it, too, was parting ways with the CWTA. Telus said it would still take part in the CWTA's programs but said that from a lobbying perspective, it wanted to highlight its "differentiated strategy" of focusing on customer service.

Mr. Lord is diplomatic when reflecting on that time, saying, "I think a lot of people learned a lot of lessons that summer, including ourselves, our members and the government."

He insists that the CWTA's position reflected the interests of its broad membership, saying there was "virtual unanimity" that the government shouldn't offer spectrum at a discount to a non-Canadian behemoth.

But he also says the group recognizes "there are issues that are so fundamental to each of our members and they each have such different points of view that we simply don't get involved."

"So I saw the role of the CWTA as promoting and pushing for more spectrum release through auctions, but not taking a position as to what rules should govern that auction," Mr. Lord said.

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