Organisers poised to call off Mobile World Congress: sources

MADRID/PARIS/BERLIN (Reuters) – Organisers of the Mobile World Congress (MWC) will decide on Wednesday whether to cancel the event, two sources said, after several major European telecom companies pulled out due to the coronavirus outbreak.

An employee walks past a banner of MWC20 (Mobile World Congress) in Barcelona, Spain February 12, 2020. REUTERS/Nacho Doce

Deutsche Telekom (DTEGn.DE), Vodafone (VOD.L), BT (BT.L) and Nokia (NOKIA.HE) said they would not be attending and a source said Orange (ORAN.PA) was set to join them although the French company said it had not taken any final decision.

The telecom industry’s biggest get together, scheduled for Feb. 24-27, typically draws more than 100,000 visitors to Barcelona. The GSMA industry group that hosts the event estimates it gives a lift of around half a billion dollars to the Spanish economy.

The GSMA convened a ‘virtual’ meeting of its board, consisting of 25 industry bosses, at 1300 GMT to discuss its options, according to two people with knowledge of the matter.

The withdrawals on Wednesday by core members of the GSMA followed the loss of top industry names from the United States, Japan and Korea.

In a holding statement pending further updates, the GSMA said it was monitoring the “fast-changing situation” around the coronavirus while working with the Spanish and global health authorities to ensure the wellbeing of attendees.

Barcelona’s mayor Ada Colau said on Wednesday she wanted to send a “message of calm”, insisting the city was ready to host the event. Spanish health officials have said there is no need to declare a health emergency.

That failed, however, to alleviate concerns among major exhibitors that the precautions would be insufficient to halt the virus that has spread beyond China’s borders to two dozen countries.

“To bring people together and connect them: That is what Telekom stands for. This is also what the Mobile World Congress, the ‘class reunion’ of our industry, stands for,” Deutsche Telekom CEO Tim Hoettges posted on LinkedIn.

He added, however, that large gatherings of people with many international guests posed a particular risk: “To take this risk would be irresponsible.”

MOBILE CHINA CONGRESS?

Major Chinese exhibitors, led by Huawei [HWT.UL], vowed to attend, ordering at-risk staff to isolate themselves and drafting in replacements from elsewhere to staff event stands and network with clients.

The GSMA had banned attendees from China’s Hubei province, where the coronavirus outbreak began, and required others to prove that they had been outside the country for at least two weeks prior to the event.

Coronavirus has proved to be contagious even when people who have caught it are asymptomatic, meaning that people attending the MWC might not even realise that they could infect others they meet there.

Reconstructing meetings and movements across the Fira trade grounds and the city of Barcelona of anyone who later tests positive would be a difficult task.

In China, total infections have hit 44,653, health officials said, including 2,015 new confirmed cases. The number of deaths on the mainland rose by 97 to 1,113 by the end of Tuesday.

Writing by Douglas Busvine; Additional reporting by Supantha Mukherjee, Tarmo Virki, Joan Faus, Can Sezer and Stephanie Nebehay; editing by Keith Weir and Elaine Hardcastle

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