This year's Mobile World Congress could face collapse after Sweden's Ericsson, one of the tradeshow's biggest exhibitors, announced its withdrawal from the event on Friday because of continued concern about the spread of coronavirus.
The equipment maker, whose booth is usually one of the largest at the event, said it took the decision because it would not be able to ensure the health and safety of employees and customers traveling to this year's event.
Its cancellation deals a huge blow to the GSM Association, the trade body that organizes and derives most of its annual income from MWC. Coming days after the withdrawal of South Korea's LG, another major exhibitor, it will spark fears of a domino effect as other companies decide whether the travel risks are too great.
Further withdrawals would increase the pressure on the GSMA to cancel this year's show. Approached by Light Reading, the organization said there had been no major cancellations besides Ericsson and LG and that MWC will go ahead as planned.
In its last statement, issued yesterday, it continued to insist there had been "minimal impact on the event thus far."
But the moves by Ericsson and LG alone seem bound to hit attendance, with the GSMA originally forecasting about 109,000 visitors this year -- roughly the same number it saw in 2019.
Attendee numbers have plateaued in the past three years after soaring from just 47,000 in 2009 to more than 100,000 in 2016. A fall in attendance this year must now be expected.
While the GSMA has been installing additional hygiene facilities and advising attendees not to shake hands this year, its efforts failed to overcome Ericsson's concern about the risks.
In a statement, Ericsson CEO Börje Ekholm said: "The health and safety of our employees, customers and other stakeholders are our highest priority. This is not a decision we have taken lightly. We were looking forward to showcasing our latest innovations at MWC in Barcelona. It is very unfortunate, but we strongly believe the most responsible business decision is to withdraw our participation from this year's event."
Ericsson said it would use the demos and content created for this year's MWC at smaller events closer to its customers.
Rival equipment maker Nokia said it was now monitoring developments and would make a final decision on MWC plans "as the situation develops."
"As of now we continue to plan to attend but the situation is fluid," said a company spokesperson when approached by Light Reading. "We will make decisions based on the best interests and the health and safety of our employees and customers."
China's ZTE, a smaller vendor, is reported to have scaled back some of its plans at this year's show with the cancellation of its usual press conference. In its own statement earlier this week, it said none of its booth staff this year will be from China and that staff will have to undergo a two-week period of self-isolation if they are travelling to the event. Any employees who show symptoms two weeks before departure will not be allowed to attend.
Originating in China, coronavirus is a respiratory disease that appears to spread much like the common cold. According to the BBC, it has now infected more than 31,000 people and claimed more than 600 lives, putting the fatality rate at about 2%.
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— Iain Morris, International Editor, Light Reading