After some of the biggest telecom companies withdrew from the wireless industry’s top annual event because of concerns about the spread of the coronavirus, MWC Barcelona 2020 is all but dead.
The organizer, the GSMA, could announce the event’s cancellation as early as Wednesday, according to people familiar with the matter. The lobby group based in London is expected to finalize a decision in the afternoon, said the people, who asked not to be identified as the deliberations aren’t public.
Two of the world’s biggest phone carriers — Deutsche Telekom AG and Vodafone Group Plc — on Wednesday joined major exhibitors such as Nokia Oyj, Ericsson AB and Sony Corp. in pulling out of MWC. Ericsson’s absence alone left a gap bigger than a standard American football field in the conference halls.
Spanish radio station Cadena Ser reported that GSMA has decided to continue preparations for MWC at least until Friday while they monitor the evolution of the virus.
A decision to abandon the gathering for the first time in its 33-year history would underscore how the continued spread of the virus from its origin in China is denting business activity around the world. The death toll in China rose to 1,113 as of Feb. 11, and confirmed cases on the mainland have reached 44,653.
Liberty Media Corp.’s Formula One on Wednesday postponed the Chinese Grand Prix, due to be held in April. Scores of companies and VIPs have pulled out of the Singapore Airshow, the industry’s biggest in Asia, scheduled for this week.
MWC is due to run from Feb. 24 to Feb. 27, drawing around 100,000 people to the Spanish city. It’s the industry’s most important opportunity for networking and a chance to show off the latest gadgets and software to buyers from across the world. Wireless equipment vendors use MWC to hammer out deals with their biggest customers.
The GSMA stepped up sanitary precautions in recent days to reassure visitors — advising against handshakes, introducing body temperature scanners and a protocol for changing microphones, and restricting entry to recent arrivals from China.
That’s not been enough to reassure many participants given the potential for virus transmission at an event where thousands of visitors jostle through packed exhibition halls and huddle in meeting rooms.
In a statement to Bloomberg, the GSMA said Wednesday it was meeting regularly with health experts and partners “to ensure the wellbeing of attendees,” and will continue to seek medical advice on a frequent basis. A representative for the industry body declined to comment further.
The biggest MWC participants often spend tens of millions of dollars to exhibit at the show. Scrapping it would raise questions over who would shoulder the cost — the exhibitors or the GSMA. The organization funds much of its budget from the event, charging 799 euros ($872) for a basic admissions pass.
This year is supposed to see the big launch for fifth-generation mobile 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.
MWC is also 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.