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MWC hangs by a thread after Nokia, DT and other big names back out

Manish Singh
BARCELONA, CATALONIA, SPAIN - 2019/02/24: Rajeev Suri President and CEO of Nokia is seen speaking during the presentation of new products. Nokia's MWC 2019 press & analyst event. Nokia has presented at the Mobile World Congress 2019 the basis of its commercial policy for the future and some new products. (Photo by Paco Freire/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

More big names are stepping Mobile World Congress, the world's biggest phone and telecom trade fair, prompting the organizers to urgently decide what they wish to do going forward.

Nokia, one of the omnipresent firms at major tech trade conferences, won't be attending this year's Mobile World Congress. It cited health and safety concerns over coronavirus outbreak. Electronics giant HMD, which sells smartphones under Nokia brand, cited similar reasoning for its withdrawal, too.

The iconic Finnish firm, one of the cornerstone companies at MWC, and HMD have become the latest to back out of the trade fair. In recent days, scores of firms including Ericsson, Amazon, Vivo, LG, Facebook and Sony have withdrawn their participation from the world's biggest smartphones-focused trade show.

German telecommunications giant Deutsche Telekom, BT, Britain's biggest telecommunications group, and London-headquartered telecoms giant Vodafone have also backed out citing coronavirus outbreak, they announced on Wednesday. French-Italian semiconductor manufacturer STMicroelectronics is also not attending, it said.

However on Wednesday afternoon (CET) Orange denied a Reuters report it won't attend, telling us it still hadn't taken a decision on whether to pull out or not. "We are awaiting further communication from the GSMA regarding the event," a spokeswoman for the operator said.

Orange CEO Stéphane Richard is the current GSMA chair.

MWC attracts over 100,000 attendees, abd thousands of companies and high-profile executives use this global platform to broker deals and unveil their upcoming gadgets and innovations to the world.

The trade fair also contributes to the bottom line of Barcelona city. This year, the four-day trade show was scheduled to take place from February 27.


"While the health and safety of our employees is our absolute priority, we also recognize that we have a responsibility to the industry and our customers. In view of this, we have taken the necessary time to evaluate a fast-moving situation, engage with the GSMA and other stakeholders, regularly consult external experts and authorities, and plan to manage risks based on a wide range of scenarios. The conclusion of that process is that we believe the prudent decision is to cancel our participation at Mobile World Congress," Nokia said in a statement.

The high-profile no-shows should put more pressure on GSMA, the body that organizes the event, to cancel this year's edition of the trade show. GSMA acknowledged the safety risks to attendees in an email on Sunday, but it ducked away from assuming any liabilities at the trade show. As my colleague Romain Dillet pointed out, the email appeared to have triggered companies to withdraw their participation.

On Tuesday, Spanish publication El Pais reported that the GSMA executives would meet on Friday and consider their next steps, which could include suspending this year's event. A spokesperson declined comment to TechCrunch.

The GSMA executives have moved to have that talk today, according to a report. Earlier local press had reported the operator association had decided to go ahead with the event -- but in a more recent update La Vanguardia reports the GSMA has called another meeting to discuss the future of MWC 2020.

The organization has previously declined to comment on internal meetings.

You can check out the full list of companies that have withdrawn from MWC so far this year below.

A list of MWC coronavirus cancellations so far: Nokia, Facebook, AT&T, Sprint, Intel now also staying away


This report was updated with additional information about Orange and the developing situation at the GSMA