A worker cleans glass doors at the Mobile World Congress venue in Barcelona, Spain, on February 12 2020. Picture: LLUIS GENE / AFP
A worker cleans glass doors at the Mobile World Congress venue in Barcelona, Spain, on February 12 2020. Picture: LLUIS GENE / AFP

Madrid — The wireless industry scrapped its biggest annual showcase on Wednesday after the coronavirus outbreak sparked an exodus of participants, roiling telecom companies just as they are  preparing to roll out new 5G services.

It is the first time in MWC Barcelona’s 33-year history that organisers have called off the event, which draws more than 100,000 participants from across the world to check out the latest innovations, pitch to investors and do deals.

“The global concern regarding the coronavirus outbreak, travel concern and other circumstances, make it impossible” to hold the event, John Hoffman, CEO of conference organizer GSMA, said in a statement to Bloomberg News.

The list of big-name attendees started to crumble on February 7, when Swedish wireless equipment maker Ericsson  pulled out, saying it could not ensure the safety of staff and customers. As others pulled the plug — from Sony   to Nokia, Vodafone Group  and Deutsche Telekom   — it became harder for those remaining to justify their presence.

MWC was due to run from February  24 to February 27. GSMA had stepped up sanitary precautions to reassure visitors — advising against handshakes, introducing body temperature scanners and a protocol for changing microphones, and restricting entry to recent arrivals from China.

Some delegations had replaced Chinese staff with colleagues from other countries or sent their China representatives ahead of time to avoid being barred.

Who’ll pay?

The decision to scrap it entirely was a difficult one, and it’s not clear who will shoulder the costs — the participants or GSMA. The industry’s biggest players often spend tens of millions of dollars to exhibit at the show. Ericsson’s absence alone left a gap bigger than a standard American football field in the conference halls.

GSMA funds much of its budget from the event, charging €799 for a basic admissions pass.

This year was supposed to see the big launch for fifth-generation mobile services that debuted in 2019. 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 would not  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.

The regional government of Catalonia had been in touch with the conference organisers and said it saw no need to cancel events such as MWC, Alba Verges, head of the Catalan government health department, said at a press conference in Barcelona.

South Korea’s LG Electronics I was among the first to rethink its participation, pointing out last week that most health experts had advised against “needlessly” exposing hundreds of employees to international travel.