Virus Worries Force Cancelation of Major Tech Show in Spain

By The Associated Press

Organizers of the world’s biggest mobile technology fair are pulling the plug over worries about the viral outbreak from China.

GSMA said on Feb. 12 that this year’s edition of Mobile World Congress would no longer be held as planned in Barcelona, Spain, on Feb. 24–27.

John Hoffman, CEO of GSMA, said: “global concern regarding the coronavirus outbreak, travel concern and other circumstances, make it impossible for the GSMA to hold the event.”

The decision comes after dozens of tech companies and wireless carriers dropped out, with the latest cancelations by Nokia, Vodafone, Deutsche Telekom, and Britain’s BT on Wednesday. Other big names that have already dropped out include Ericsson, Nokia, Sony, Amazon, Intel, and LG. The companies cited concerns for the safety of staff and visitors.

Organizers had sought to hold out against growing pressure to cancel Mobile World Congress, an annual tech extravaganza that had been expected to draw more than 100,000 visitors from about 200 countries, including 5,000 to 6,000 from China.

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A worker fixes a poster announcing the Mobile World Congress 2020 in a conference venue in Barcelona, Spain, on Feb. 11, 2020. (Emilio Morenatti/ AP Photo)

The GSMA, the wireless trade body that organizes the fair, had said it was monitoring the virus situation closely, including meeting regularly with global and Spanish health experts and its partners to ensure the well-being of attendees.

Nokia said Wednesday it had decided to withdraw from Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain “after a full assessment of the risks related to a fast-moving situation.” The company said, “the health and well-being of employees was a primary focus” and that canceling its involvement was a “prudent decision.”

Phone company Vodafone said it was dropping out “after careful consideration,” while Britain’s BT said canceling was “the most responsible decision.”

The departures of Nokia and Ericsson had left China’s Huawei, a major sponsor of the fair, as the only remaining major network gear maker still planning to attend.

Organizers were caught between risking potential backlash over public health concerns if they were to go ahead or facing big financial losses if they canceled, said Stephen Mears, a research analyst at Futuresource Consulting.

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People wearing protective masks shopping at a supermarket in Shenyang in China’s northeastern Liaoning province on Feb. 10, 2020. (STR/AFP via Getty Images)

Even before word of the cancellation, Mears said he and his team were considering dropping out or shortening the trip as many participants they wanted to meet won’t be there, including those from China, which accounts for an increasing share of the global smartphone and mobile network industry.

“It’s becoming less and less valuable for people like us to attend if we’re not able to get meetings with the high-level executives,” he said.

Spanish authorities tried to promote a message of calm as they scrambled to keep alive the trade show, which they say generates $516 million (473 million euros) and more than 14,000 part-time jobs for the local economy.

The Catalan regional health chief, Alba Vergés, said there’s a “very low risk of the coronavirus” in the region of Catalonia, where Barcelona is located, and that authorities are “completely prepared to detect any cases.” Four suspected cases have all have proven negative, she said at a press briefing.

“There is no public health reason to cancel any event in Catalonia or Barcelona, including the Mobile World Congress,” Vergés said. “If the companies make their own decision, we have to respect that, but we are here to explain this from a public health perspective.”

By Kelvin Chan