Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam retiring, to be replaced by CTO Hans Vestberg

Verizon on Friday said that Lowell McAdam will step down as chief executive on Aug. 1, serving as executive chairman until his retirement at the end of the year. McAdam, 64, will remain with the company as non-executive chairman. 

Succeeding McAdam is Hans Vestberg, who joined the company in 2017 as chief technology officer after a six-year stint as the CEO of Swedish telecommunications giant Ericsson. 

The leadership shuffle comes at a time of critical change in the wireless industry, as Verizon and its competitors race to deploy next-generation 5G coverage and stake new claims of network superiority. Verizon has vowed to be the first to 5G, but has only talked about its plans to roll it out as a broadband replacement service. This also comes amid other shifts in the industry, including T-Mobile's planned merger with Sprint, which resulted in Sprint getting its own new CEO

The announcement marks a break from Verizon's usual practice of naming a veteran executive to take the reins. McAdam served as the CEO of Verizon Wireless before becoming chief operating officer and, finally, CEO. Vestberg, 52, has spent a year at the company.

It's the move to 5G that likely drove this decision. A longtime network infrastructure executive who has talked about the benefits of a "connected society," Vestberg was brought in to to lay out the company's next-generation network architecture, as well to integrate its various wireless and landline networks. 

His plans are critical as the various wireless carriers jockey for leadership position in the US. AT&T has said it will be the first to launch a mobile 5G network this year, while both Sprint and T-Mobile said they would launch in multiple cities in the first half of 2019. 

In prior interviews, Vestberg insisted Verizon would be first to 5G, but didn't go into details about whether its mobile 5G network would launch before AT&T. 

"We are experiencing unprecedented changes in the way users interact in the digital world, and we are racing ahead to remain at the forefront of technology, connectivity and mobility," Vestberg said in a statement. 

Vestberg was a long-time executive at Ericsson, but stepped down in 2016 after the company hit a rough patch.

Verizon declined to make Vestberg available for an interview. 

McAdam's legacy

Verizon's leadership position in wireless will be one of the legacies of McAdam, who took over as CEO in August 2011, just before the company launched the nation's first widespread LTE network. Under his leadership, Verizon took back sole ownership of Verizon Wireless, which was a joint venture with Vodafone. Over the last few years, McAdam has spearheaded a shift in the business to bulk up the company's ad sales and media businesses, gobbling up AOL and Yahoo's core business and forming them into its Oath unit.

Verizon spent roughly $9 billion between its two acquisitions. 

Those deals came at a time when AT&T was making a bigger bet in the entertainment world, spending $48.5 billion for DirecTV and making a $85.4 billion bid for Time Warner, which it is still in the courtroom fighting the Justice Department over the pending merger. 

Over the last few years, Verizon felt the sting of stiffer competition as T-Mobile rode its "Un-carrier" campaign to explosive customer growth. Verizon has at times had to respond to T-Mobile's moves, including eliminating contracts and phone subsidies and reintroducing an unlimited data plan. McAdam's attitude has been to focus on Verizon, and not the competition, in spite of a pending merger between T-Mobile and Sprint. 

"We don't care, is the answer to that," McAdam told GeekWire, facetiously alluding to past attempts by T-Mobile to merge with Sprint and AT&T.