MWC still happening but with more restrictions and fewer participants

The GSM Association says Mobile World Congress (MWC), the huge trade show it hosts in Barcelona each year, is going ahead as planned, but notes it has imposed tough new restrictions on access to the show as it tries to address concern about the risks of coronavirus following cancellations by several major companies in recent days.

Under its latest policies, anyone coming from China will need to prove they have been outside the country for at least two weeks before MWC starts -- a rule that effectively means anyone still in China tomorrow will not be allowed into the event on February 24, when the show begins.

The GSMA has also banned anyone from China's Hubei province, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, from attending this year's MWC.

The show last year welcomed about 109,000 attendees, including between 5,000 and 6,000 from China, according to the GSMA's own data, but restrictions and cancellations look bound to hit visitor numbers this year.

Now the telecom sector's biggest annual event, MWC grew from just 47,000 visitors in 2009 to reach more than 100,000 by 2016. Attendee numbers have plateaued in the past three years as the broader industry has failed to grow.

The GSMA's restrictions were announced after several exhibitors announced their withdrawals from the show amid concern about the risks of exposure to coronavirus, a respiratory disease that had claimed more than 900 lives and infected 40,000 people -- mainly in China -- at the time of publication.

Before the weekend, South Korea's LG Electronics and Sweden's Ericsson -- one of the event's largest exhibitors -- said they would not be attending MWC due to concern about the disease. They were joined at the weekend by Japan's Sony, Nvidia, a US maker of graphical processing units, and Viavi Solutions, a test and measurement specialist.

Generating $79 billion in revenues in its last fiscal year, Sony said it would not be coming to Barcelona in light of what the World Health Organization has described as a global emergency. "As we place the utmost importance on the safety and wellbeing of our customers, partners, media and employees, we have taken the difficult decision to withdraw from exhibiting and participating at MWC 2020 in Barcelona, Spain," said the company in a statement.

Nvidia, which made nearly $12 billion in revenues in 2018, said it would not be sending any employees to this year's event. "Given public health risks around the coronavirus, ensuring the safety of our colleagues, partners and customers is our highest concern," said the company in a statement published on its website.

In its own release, Viavi, which reported sales of about $1.1 billion in its 2019 fiscal year, said it had chosen to cancel "after reviewing all available data." It had planned on sending about 50 people to this year's show.

According to an update from The Mobile Network, Amazon Web Services has also decided it will not be exhibiting or participating at MWC this year.

For all the latest news from the wireless networking and services sector, check out our dedicated Mobile content channel here on Light Reading.

Various other companies, including Apple and Verizon, are believed to have scaled back or cancelled attendance without issuing formal statements, while Chinese vendor ZTE has scaled back its show plans. Nokia, a Finnish equipment maker of similar size and importance to Ericsson, is currently monitoring the situation.

Operators including France's Orange -- which typically has a major presence at the event as one of Europe's biggest telcos and an important service provider in Spain -- are also reviewing their plans. "Orange is still attending MWC though we are of course monitoring the situation closely," said a spokesperson for the company. "Needless to say, the health and safety of our employees is a top priority."

Despite the withdrawals and speculation the event might be cancelled, the GSMA is determined not to scrap a show that generates the bulk of its annual income, with companies collectively paying tens of millions of dollars for exhibition and meeting room space.

In its latest statement on the crisis, it said it remained "more than 2,800 exhibitors strong" even though several high-profile companies had pulled out and others were "still contemplating their next steps."

The GSMA has made investments in additional hygiene facilities and advised attendees not to shake hands this year.

But further withdrawals by major exhibitors or service providers would increase the pressure on the organization to cancel this year's show.

Spain's public sector authorities are currently insisting the region of Catalonia is not a public health risk zone, according to the GSMA. "The Catalan health system is prepared to detect and treat coronavirus, to give the most appropriate response, and this must be clear to those attending MWC Barcelona," said Health Minster Alba Vergés, as quoted in the GSMA's statement.

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— Iain Morris, International Editor, Light Reading

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