CORONAVIRUS

Barcelona’s Mobile World Congress overshadowed by coronavirus cancellations

Organizers say the global tech event will go ahead later this month, but as more and more firms drop out, a Friday meeting is likely to determine whether it gets postponed or even axed

The Mobile World Congress in 2019.
The Mobile World Congress in 2019.EFE

The organizers of the Mobile World Congress (MWC), a leading tech innovation showcase held annually in Barcelona, insist that this year’s event will go ahead despite a constant trickle of exhibitor cancellations due to concerns about the coronavirus from China.

But the board of GSMA, the industry lobby behind the MWC, will meet on Friday to consider the next steps to take, including postponing or even cancelling the event altogether, said industry sources. With little more than a week to go before the trade fair is due to start, cancelation would cost more than €500 million.

The meeting had already been scheduled ahead of the recent announcements by major brands that they are pulling out due to health concerns over the novel coronavirus. Official sources denied on Tuesday that there is any sense of urgency about the Friday meeting, but sources familiar with GSMA said that the possibility of axing or delaying the event will be on the table. Postponing the MWC to the spring would allow organizers to renegotiate the space rental and other infrastructure-related issues, lowering the tremendous cost of an outright cancellation.

Latest losses

On Monday the Japanese companies Sony and NTT DoCoMo, as well as the US-based Intel, announced they were pulling out of the trade fair, joining other big brands such as Amazon, LG, Nvidia and Ericsson. China’s Umidigi, which makes smartphones and smartwatches, also bowed out, as did Amdocs, CommScope, Panorama Software and Germany’s Gigaset. On Tuesday, Cisco, AT&T, Sprint, Facebook and McAfee all announced they would not be coming. The Chinese cellphone brand Vivo also joined the cancelations, as did Taiwanese firm Mediatek, which makes processors for 5G networks, as well as the Canadian company Accedian. On Wednesday, the Japanese giant Rakuten also pulled out, justifying its absence on the need to guarantee “the health and safety of our customers, partners and employees.”

The GSMA has introduced extraordinary measures such as passport controls and temperature checks in a bid to reassure participants that they will be safe from infection. The industry lobby was maintaining on Tuesday that MWC20 will go ahead as planned from February 24 to 27. But attendance is now likely to be well below the 109,000 participants and 2,4000 companies that came last year.

“The safety and well-being of all our employees and partners is our top priority, and we have withdrawn from this year’s Mobile World Congress out of an abundance of caution,” said Intel in a statement to news agency Bloomberg. “We are grateful to the GSMA for their understanding and look forward to attending and supporting future Mobile World Congress events.”

Major industry players from China such as Huawei have decided not to send their executives to Barcelona, and European representatives will be in charge of the presentations instead.

The cancellations have been prompted by the global health alert over what scientists have termed the 2019-nCoV acute respiratory disease, which was first detected in the Chinese city of Wuhan. The death toll in mainland China from the new virus, which is a member of the coronavirus family and a close cousin to the SARS and MERS viruses that have caused outbreaks in the past, had reached more than a thousand people by Tuesday.

Attendance is likely to be below the 109,000 participants who came last year.

Authorities in Spain – ranging from the Health Ministry and the Catalan regional government, to Barcelona city officials – have been insisting that measures are in place to ensure people’s safety. But this has not stopped companies from dropping out.

On Tuesday, the spokesperson for the Catalan government, Meritxell Budó, stated that there was, for now, “no recommendations from any health authority” for major events such as the MWC not to go ahead. She did, however, clarify that it is the organizers who will have to make the final decision as to whether or not to cancel or reschedule. The Health Ministry made similar statements.

Spain’s King Felipe VI is still planning on opening the trade fair, Miguel González reports. Sources from the Royal Household said that the monarch’s visit to the Catalan capital is still on his official agenda and that for now there are no plans to make any changes.

So far in Spain, there have been two reported cases of the Wuhan coronavirus.

English version by Susana Urra.

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