A banner at the Mobile World Congress (MWC) 2020 in Barcelona, Spain on February 5, 2020. Picture: REUTERS/NACHO DOCE
A banner at the Mobile World Congress (MWC) 2020 in Barcelona, Spain on February 5, 2020. Picture: REUTERS/NACHO DOCE

London — Ericsson has withdrawn from the telecoms industry’s biggest annual event to protect its staff and visitors from the coronavirus outbreak.

The Swedish maker of mobile networks said on Friday that it had pulled out of the Mobile World Congress (MWC) Barcelona, due to be held on February 24 to 27. As one of the largest exhibitors, with thousands of visitors in its hall each day, Ericsson said it could not guarantee the health and safety of employees and customers.

Conference organisers said the event will proceed.

“It is very unfortunate, but we strongly believe the most responsible business decision is to withdraw our participation from this year’s event,” Ericsson CEO Börje Ekholm said. “This is not a decision we have taken lightly.”

Ericsson’s move shows how the spread of the virus is beginning to disrupt business activity far from its epicentre. The company’s absence will leave a gap bigger than a standard American football field in the exhibition halls, based on the floor plan issued by the organisers.

The cancellation “will potentially have further impact”, the GSMA, the mobile industry lobby group and sponsor of the conference, said in a statement. “The GSMA continues to monitor and assess the potential impact of the coronavirus” on the event.

China has reported more than 31,000 cases of the novel coronavirus and more than 600 people have died in the country since the outbreak began. This week, the GSMA this week stepped up efforts to avoid infections at MWC, such as encouraging a no-handshake policy and a protocol for changing microphones.

On Friday it detailed further measures for exhibitors that included “arriving early in Spain to allow time for self-quarantine, ensuring access to masks and replacing attendees from high-risk countries with local European-based colleagues and representatives”.

Scaling back

Some Asian companies have scaled back their presence at MWC. LG Electronics withdrew from exhibiting at the event, saying most health experts have advised against “needlessly” exposing hundreds of employees to international travel. Shenzhen, China-based ZTE, which makes smartphones and wireless network gear, canceled its MWC press conference.

Other companies that would normally take part are assessing the situation. BT Group is keeping its attendance under review, a spokesperson said. Nokia, Ericsson’s Nordic rival, plans to be there though the situation is fluid, said a spokesperson.

France’s Orange still aims to attend for the time being. Orange CEO Stéphane Richard, who’s also the GSMA’s chair, is “attentive” to the coronavirus situation and monitoring it closely, a spokesperson said.

Representatives from China’s Huawei Technologies will attend as planned, a spokesperson said. The company — the world’s biggest telecoms equipment maker and a major handset supplier — is working with the GSMA on preventive measures. Ericsson’s move “might trigger other big vendors, who would have many staff members on site, to withdraw”, said Stenvall Kimmo, an analyst at OP Corporate Bank in Helsinki.

Ericsson said the demos and content it’s created for MWC Barcelona will be showcased close to customers at local events.

With Kati Pohjanpalo


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