UPDATE: MWC Collapses - Editor's Corner: MWC Barcelona 2020 on the precipice of collapse

Linda Hardesty editor's corner

UPDATED 2:35 ET — GSMA CEO John Hoffman issued a statement, saying, "With due regard to the safe and healthy environment in Barcelona and the host country today, the GSMA has cancelled MWC Barcelona 2020 because the global concern regarding the coronavirus outbreak, travel concern and other circumstances, make it impossible for the GSMA to hold the event."

It has been astonishing to see how quickly this year’s MWC Barcelona has collapsed under the weight of coronavirus concerns.

The annual wireless and telecom conference, which is scheduled for Feb. 24-27, first showed signs of distress last week when Ericsson announced it was dropping out of the event. The Swedish vendor, which normally has a huge exhibit at MWC Barcelona, said, “Ericsson has thousands of visitors in its hall each day, and even if the risk is low, the company cannot guarantee the health and safety of its employees and visitors.”

This was a big blow to the GSMA, the organization that hosts MWC events in both Barcelona and Los Angeles. And personally, I was sad to hear Ericsson was dropping out. They’re an important vendor in the wireless space (and they always had the best food at their exhibit hall!)

But now, a week later, it looks like the entire conference might implode.

Ericsson’s move seemed to sway a lot of other companies that were weighing their options. Amazon, NTT, Sony, Amdocs, CommScope, Nvidia and Viavi Solutions quickly followed in Ericsson’s footsteps.

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Yesterday, the chips really began to fall. Announcements came from American companies Cisco, Sprint, AT&T, Intel and Facebook, among others. And today, we got word that the big European companies Nokia, DT and BT are dropping out. Japan’s Rakuten also pulled the plug.

The list of companies dropping out is big. To be fair, there are still a lot of companies that are planning to attend. But the dropouts are some really big names.

Typically, MWC Barcelona attracts more than 100,000 attendees. But with news reports that the coronavirus has killed more than 1,000 people so far, and with images on TV of cruise ships stuck in ports with thousands of people trapped on board in quarantine, there seems to be legitimate cause for concern. Our hearts go out to all the people around the world who are suffering from the effects of this virus. Is it really a good idea to bring thousands of people together at a crowded industry event at this time?

Most of the deaths from coronavirus have occurred in mainland China. Several countries, including the United States, Australia and the Philippines have restricted travel into their countries from China. But China has not strictly limited travel from its own country to international destinations.

Chinese companies

At MWC Barcelona some Chinese companies have historically had a big presence, most notably Huawei and ZTE. Both of these companies are still listed as exhibitors on the GSMA event website.

Huawei has not made any official statements about its attendance at the event, and requests for comment from GSMA in regard to Huawei’s status have not been answered. ZTE has announced it still plans to participate, but its booth will be staffed by representatives mainly from Europe.

GSMA said that historically 5,000-6,000 exhibitors and attendees have come from China, representing about 5-6% of the show’s average 100,000 attendees.

Reuters today is reporting that the GSMA held a virtual board meeting to discuss the possible cancellation of MWC in Barcelona. That would be a big blow not only to GSMA but also to the City of Barcelona. And it’s a shame for the wireless industry, as well, during this pivotal time when carriers are transforming their networks to 5G. It would have also been a great opportunity to hear from T-Mobile about its plans to integrate Sprint, now that their merger has gotten the green light.

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T-Mobile, by the way, has been quiet on its plans for MWC Barcelona. The carrier is not listed as an exhibitor on the event site.