The number of big companies abandoning the wireless industry’s biggest annual gathering in response to the coronavirus is stacking up, leaving the event’s organizers scrambling to respond.
Intel Corp., MediaTek Inc., AT&T Inc., Cisco Systems Inc. and Sprint Corp. joined Ericsson AB, Sony Corp. and others in canceling plans to attend MWC Barcelona later this month. Intel said it’s pulling out due to “an abundance of caution.” AT&T said “the most responsible decision” is to withdraw from the show to protect employees and customers.
The board of global industry lobby GSMA, which oversees the annual showcase, will hold a video call on Friday to discuss the cancellations and review its contingency planning, said a person familiar with the matter, who asked not to be identified as the matter is private.
A representative for the GSMA declined to comment.
The cancellations mean there will be swathes of unoccupied exhibition space when MWC opens its doors on Feb. 24, calling into question whether an event that’s the highlight of the industry’s calendar can go ahead. The show has never been scrapped in its 33-year history and doing so would raise the thorny issue of who would cover the cost.
Participants spend tens of millions of dollars to attend and exhibit there, making it a major source of income for the GSMA. Calling it off could leave the organization facing heavy losses.
The GSMA confirmed as recently as Sunday that MWC will happen, although it’s requiring attendees to prove they’ve not set foot in mainland China in the two weeks prior to showing up. More than 100,000 people had been expected to attend and the GSMA has reinforced sanitary measures to reassure visitors — advising against handshakes, introducing body temperature scanners and routinely exchanging microphones at presentation areas.
The global spread of the coronavirus has decimated other conferences like Singapore’s annual airshow, which lost scores of corporate attendees but went ahead as planned on a smaller scale.
Smartphone and networking companies from Huawei Technologies Co. to Samsung Electronics Co. use MWC show off their wares and launch new products, while wireless equipment vendors meet the world’s big phone carriers to thrash out deals.
For the mobile industry as a whole, MWC 2020 is supposed to serve as a platform to launch fifth-generation wireless products and services into the mainstream consciousness.
MWC is important to the city of Barcelona, as well as to many of the smaller companies that wouldn’t otherwise have access to such a large audience of mobile carriers and consumers. Large national contingents from Turkey to South Korea take to the show to encourage deal-making and inward investment.
This year is also the big launch for 5G phone services that debuted last year. The smartphone industry is trying to fire up stalled growth with the promise of higher data speeds and faster responsiveness. Smartphone shipments have been declining since 2016.
The Barcelona gathering is a showcase for new phones — Qualcomm Inc. estimates that 45 manufacturers will debut new 5G devices this year — and an industry marketplace where executives meet off the show floor to strike deals.
With MediaTek, Intel, Ericsson, AT&T, Sprint, Cisco and also Nvidia Corp. sidelined by fears about the coronavirus’ spread, some of the biggest 5G advocates will not be in attendance at the show. Ericsson has said it will present its latest innovations in smaller, localized events dubbed Ericsson Unboxed, while Sony plans to launch its latest mobile devices via a live stream on its Xperia YouTube channel.
Huawei and Samsung, habitually the two biggest attention-grabbers at MWC, remain committed to attending this year, though both companies are expected to scale down their presence. Numerous Chinese companies, including Xiaomi Corp. and ZTE Corp., have indicated a willingness to work around measures to curb the virus rather than give the show a total miss.
Some of the GSMA’s own members, such as British phone company BT Group Plc, have said they’re keeping their attendance under review.
Many of the smaller Chinese firms now have to contend not only with travel restrictions at home but also an accelerated timeline for arriving into Barcelona — to participate on day one of MWC, they’ll need to have departed China on Feb. 10.
The companies that have now withdrawn from Mobile World Congress 2020 include:
- NTT Docomo
- LG (partial withdrawal)