Has Mobile World Congress hit its peak? That's the question the show's organizer, the GSM Association, and others will be asking today as news emerged that around 107,000 visitors were at this year's event -- 1,000 less than in 2017.
The GSMA, which also acts as a lobby group for the mobile operator community, had been aiming to beat the 2017 figure of 108,000 visitors and record a ninth successive year of growth.
With 107,000 visitors, MWC remains by far the biggest tradeshow dedicated to the telecom industry and has seen visitor numbers rise significantly from 47,000 in 2009, the last year in which it suffered a decline.
But the slight drop in numbers this year will likely raise concern that MWC may have peaked in terms of attendee numbers. It could also prompt the question: Is the show's influence waning? (See How Long Before We Hit Peak MWC?)
The fact remains that a large and significant rump of the communications networking industry heads to Barcelona each year to do business, conduct meetings and check out what's new. While visitor numbers might have slipped slightly, this is still the must-attend event for most in the industry.
That said, with the convergence between telecom and other parts of the wider technology industry, the show now faces competition from events such as the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), held in Las Vegas every January.
CES recorded 184,000 visitors this year and is now seen as "the event that defines the industry" by John Strand, an analyst and consultant.
Moreover, many of the operators and vendors that back the GSMA have been slashing headcount as they automate and digitalize their operations, giving the MWC a smaller addressable audience than in years past.
Norway's Telenor Group (Nasdaq: TELN) plans to cut 6,000 jobs over the next three years, reducing overall headcount by a fifth, while Russia's Mobile TeleSystems OJSC (MTS) (NYSE: MBT) says it will lay off 1,000 customer services staff this year. (See Russia's MTS to Cut 1,000 Jobs as AI, Chatbots Arrive, Downsizing Telenor Pins Margin Hopes on Automation and Efficiency Drive by Major Telcos Has Claimed 74K Jobs Since 2015.)
Meanwhile, US telco giant AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) cut 14,540 positions last year, or about one in 20 jobs. Sweden's Ericsson AB (Nasdaq: ERIC), one of the world's biggest makers of network equipment, laid off 10,000 employees in 2017 to leave it with 100,735 at the end of the year.
In addition, a number of attendees who spoke with Light Reading staff at the event questioned how useful and relevant the event's generic conference sessions are in helping to educate and inform attendees. Others said that giving operators the chance to whine about regulatory regimes and pressure was of little value.
As telecom has converged with other industries, MWC has flourished by appealing to the organizations now taking advantage of high-speed data connectivity. Carmakers, healthcare specialists and robotics firms have all been visible in recent years, as major industry verticals become strategically reliant on cloud and communications technologies for their own innovation.
Yet the show has arguably been a victim of its own success. With its sprawl, spin and lack of focus, it has become an event that some industry people now feel provides little tangible benefit. Despite this, most critics still attend: The networking opportunities, at the very least, provide more than enough value for the time and expense of heading to Barcelona. Dean Bubley is one high-profile industry analyst who says he no longer makes the trip. But he is in the minority.
This year's show also lacked much in the way of groundbreaking news, according to a number of attendees who spoke with Light Reading. Worried their announcements will get lost in the noise, many companies now prefer to hold press events in the run-up to the show, or even on the Sunday before it starts, elsewhere in Barcelona.
Finland's Nokia Corp. (NYSE: NOK), China's Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. and Spanish telecom incumbent Telefónica all had major press and industry analyst presentations on the Sunday ("Day 0"), while France's Orange (NYSE: FTE) provided an update on its 5G strategy in Paris earlier in the month. (See Nokia Makes 5G Waves With Its ReefShark Chip and Telefónica Takes Aura AI Tool Into 6 Markets.)
Deutsche Telekom AG (NYSE: DT) remains the only big European operator that holds important press events at the show itself, providing an update on its own 5G strategy as well as that of US subsidiary T-Mobile. (See DT Will Start Commercial 5G Trials in 2018 and T-Mobile to Roll Out 5G in 30 US Cities in 2018.)
Vittorio Colao, the CEO of UK-based Vodafone Group plc (NYSE: VOD), used this year's MWC to complain about European regulators and to lock horns with Timotheus Höttges, his counterpart at Deutsche Telekom. The two men have clashed over possible M&A activity in the German market. (See Europe at Risk of 'Slow, Fragmented' 5G, Warns Vodafone Boss and Vodafone's Colao, DT's Höttges Lock Horns in Barca.)
With the current political turmoil in Catalonia, there has also been speculation that organizers might try to move the event to another city. The GSM Association (GSMA) last year launched an MWC Americas show that attracted 21,000 visitors in San Francisco: It has already outgrown that city and will move to Los Angeles later this year.
Vodafone's Colao told reporters that he would not support plans for a change in venue. "The [political] situation is delicate and cultural and I cannot comment but I think it is the right place," he said at this year's show. "Barcelona and Mobile World Congress have to stay together." He is not alone in that sentiment.
The GSMA, of course, chose to highlight the positives, revealing that 7,700 CEOs attended this year's show, up from 6,100 in 2017. (Ed note: if the industry keeps slashing jobs at its current rate, the CEOs will be the only people left...)
There was also a slight increase in the proportion of female visitors: 24% of attendees were women this year, up from 23% in 2017, noted the GSMA.
— Iain Morris, News Editor, Light Reading