The Mobile World Congress (MWC), organized by GSMA, is so much more than just a mobile showcase. It is one of the biggest annual events in tech. Unfortunately, this year's conference, due to take place between the 24th and 27th of February, looks set to be heavily-affected by worries about public health concerns related to the Wuhan coronavirus.
Several big-name companies, including Amazon and Sony, have pulled out amidst fears over the coronavirus, which recently surpassed a death toll of 1000. While most of the companies that decided not to attend the conference cited "an abundance of caution," some are calling for the conference to be postponed.
UPDATE: February 12, 2:30 PM: Mobile World Congress cancels the event after biggest names in tech opt-out
Earlier on Wednesday, the GSMA attempted to assure undecided companies that strengthened health safety measures would prove sufficient to guarantee everyone's safety. The GSMA even declared that visitors from not just Wuhan but the entire Hubei province of China would be denied access. As a bonus policy that feels borderline-desperate, they also declared that temperature screenings would be enforced to all attendees.
Sadly none of this was enough to assuage the mobile giants. The show is off, but the GSMA is resolute in re-inviting attendees to next year's event.
"An abundance of caution"
Amongst the latest names to cancel are Facebook and Amazon. Intel and Nvidia have already pulled out, and Samsung has claimed that it will reduce its official attendance due to the Wuhan Coronavirus.
Nokia has also said it won't be attending. The company wrote that “we believe the prudent decision is to cancel our participation at Mobile World Congress”. However, they say they want to express their "thanks to the GSMA, the governments of China and Spain as well as Catalonia’s Generalitat, and many others who have worked tirelessly to address the challenges resulting from the novel coronavirus."
Most companies are claiming that they won't be attending as a precaution, rather than as a reflection of the way the Mobile World Congress organizers, GSMA, are managing the situation.
“Out of an abundance of caution, Facebook employees won’t be attending this year’s Mobile World Congress due to the evolving public health risks related to coronavirus,” a spokesperson for Facebook told Tech Crunch, in a statement that mirrored the words of several other big companies that won't be attending the event.
“We will continue to collaborate with the GSMA and our partners and thank them for their efforts.”
Here is the full list of companies that have so far released statements saying they won't be attending the Mobile World Congress this year due to the Wuhan coronavirus — now officially known as Covid-2019.
Several other companies have also confirmed to Tech Crunch via email that they will not attend the event. These include F5 Networks, Facebook, Gigaset, KMW, McAfee, Radwin, Sprint, and Viber.
Will the event go ahead?
As Spanish newspaper El Pais pointed out, there were unconfirmed reports that the GSMA, the organizing body behind the MWC, would meet on Friday to consider what to do next. According to the reports, the question of whether to postpone the Mobile World Congress was to be a part of the discussions.
Organizers of the Barcelona Mobile World Congress will soon decide whether to postpone or cancel the leading tech event as more firms drop out due to coronavirus concerns. https://t.co/woDwezIpp8— El País in English (@elpaisinenglish) February 11, 2020
Of course, it's anyone's guess what this meeting will discuss, now that the show is off.
One telecoms industry veteran, who was reportedly in contact with the GSMA, told the Financial Times that “they are waiting to find out if the dam is going to burst and it is really creaking now,” referring to the number of companies that have already pulled out, and wondering, before it was cancelled whether the conference might not be, after all.
One individual had put together a petition on Change.org calling for the Mobile World Congress to be postponed due to fears the event will aid in the spread of the Wuhan Coronavirus. It stood at a relatively low 2,000 signatures at the time of this article's update.
How is the GSMA handling the situation?
Handshakes were reportedly banned at the MWC, in order to avoid spreading the virus if it is indeed present in any attendees. Sanitizing gel is also being bought in large quantities and passports will be vetted before people enter the conference to check if any attendees have visited China in the past fortnight.
The GSMA has also introduced a 14-day policy for Chinese companies, the Financial Times reports. This means that these companies would have had to arrive in Spain 14 days before the event, if it had gone forward, in order to self-quarantine. The 14-day timeframe would have, the theory goes, ensured that anyone carrying the Wuhan coronavirus showed symptoms before attending the event. In which case they would have not attended.
Handshakes have been banned, sanitising gel purchased and passports will be vetted to block attendees who visited China in the past fortnight. That is, if Mobile World Congress goes ahead in Barcelona this month https://t.co/9Rp0dLhfVu— Financial Times (@FinancialTimes) February 11, 2020
Huawei, one of the biggest companies to have a regular presence at the MWC, stated that it means to attend the conference before it was canelled. The Chinese mobile giant says that it has already flown the employees involved to Barcelona for the necessary self-quarantine period.
Some Chinese companies weren't able to react in time to this policy. According to The Mobile Network blog, Coosea and Umidigi, two smaller handset makers, pulled out of the MWC following the setting of the new rule.
Finally, no one from Hubei province, the location from which the Wuhan coronavirus has spread, will be admitted to the MWC. The GSMA has also recruited additional medical staff and promised that surfaces at the conference, which will take place in La Fira, Barcelona, will be regularly disinfected.
As El Pais points out, the MWC creates approximately 14,000 temporary jobs and generates €492 million (nearly $540 million) for the city of Barcelona. A lot was riding on the conference going forward. But now it won't.