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Virus Fallout Leaves Fate of Top Mobile Industry Event on Edge

Loni Prinsloo, Thomas Seal and Rodrigo Orihuela

(Bloomberg) -- 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.

Members of the organizer, the GSMA, headed into a meeting on Wednesday expecting to announce a decision to cancel the conference in the afternoon, according to people familiar with the matter. However, the group based in London has been unable to arrive quickly at a conclusion on what to do.

While many members of the lobby group publicly said they would withdraw, the organization’s base is broad and global. It’s not clear who would carry the costs of choosing not to go ahead. The Catalonian health authority said Wednesday it saw no need for such an event to be canceled.

Spanish radio station Cadena Ser reported that GSMA has decided to continue preparations for MWC at least until Friday while it monitors the evolution of the virus.

Two of the world’s biggest phone carriers -- Deutsche Telekom AG and Vodafone Group Plc -- earlier 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.

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. Were the event to go ahead, it would be a shadow of its former self.

5G Showcase

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. The GSMA 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 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 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.

--With assistance from Stefan Nicola, Angelina Rascouet, Daniele Lepido, Thomas Gualtieri, Nate Lanxon and Charles Penty.

To contact the reporters on this story: Loni Prinsloo in Johannesburg at lprinsloo3@bloomberg.net;Thomas Seal in London at tseal@bloomberg.net;Rodrigo Orihuela in Madrid at rorihuela@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Rebecca Penty at rpenty@bloomberg.net, Jennifer Ryan

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