Swedish equipment giant Ericsson dealt a massive blow to this year's delayed Mobile World Congress late Monday when it said it had decided to withdraw entirely from the event, citing continued health and safety concerns amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
The announcement deprives the Barcelona-based event of one of its largest exhibitors and could spark fears of the same domino effect that happened in 2020, when it became the first big network equipment vendor to cancel its participation at a show that was eventually aborted.
In an email sent directly to Light Reading, the company said: "In view of the continuing impacts from Covid-19 and our primary consideration towards our people, their health and well-being, we have decided not to participate in MWC 2021."
"The decision, whilst regrettable, reflects our precautionary approach to managing the pandemic from a people and travel perspective whilst vaccination programs are rolled out globally," it continued. "We look forward to the opportunity to rejoin future events and continue to work closely with the GSMA and industry partners."
The update came just hours after the GSM Association, the show's organizer, had published details of its health and safety plans for this year's event, delayed from February to June, in a move designed to reassure prospective attendees.
The show usually attracts more than 100,000 visitors and in years past has been regarded as a must-attend event for executives in the mobile phone industry. Visitor numbers have soared from about 50,000 in 2006.
Last year's cancellation happened as the coronavirus outbreak that started in China was spreading into other countries and came after dozens of exhibitors and operators said they would not be attending the show because of health and safety concerns.
Before Ericsson's cancellation, the GSMA was hoping to attract between 40,000 and 50,000 visitors to this year's show, conceding that many regulars would be unable or unwilling to travel in the current circumstances.
That already looked optimistic to many commentators given the travel restrictions in many parts of the world, including requirements to quarantine in some countries after international flights.
During an interview with Light Reading earlier today, Stephanie Lynch-Habib, the GSMA's chief marketing officer, acknowledged that restrictions could affect people traveling from countries including the UK and the US. The GSMA, she said, could not predict "where the restrictions will go" or if they will be imposed or lifted as the show nears.
Ericsson had previously booked space for its booth in Hall 2 of La Fira, the conference venue, but told Light Reading a few days ago that it was still weighing a final decision. "Should there be indications that the global pandemic remains a risk factor as we get closer to the event, we will independently review our decision," it said.
Today's move is a massive worry for the GSMA, which generates much of its revenue from the Barcelona event. It has been desperate to run the 2020 show as a physical one after last year's upset led to financial difficulties for the industry association.
In June, Telecoms.com, Light Reading's sister site, reported on hefty layoffs at the GSMA sparked by the loss of revenues from MWC Barcelona.
"We are heartbroken that these reductions will impact around 20% of our current workforce," a spokesperson for the GSMA told Telecoms.com. "We are providing wellbeing support to our employees during this challenging time."
That came weeks after the GSMA had been forced to offer compensation deals to exhibitors affected by the cancellation of the 2020 show.
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— Iain Morris, International Editor, Light Reading