Global telecom gathering close to being scrubbed over coronavirus

A handful of major telecom firms have already pulled out of the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.

World Mobile Congress
An employee walks past a banner of the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain - a gathering of 100,000 global participants that can boost Spain's economy by half a billion dollars but that organisers may scrap due to coronavirus fears [Nacho Doce/Reuters]

Organisers of the Mobile World Congress (MWC) will decide on Wednesday whether to scrap the Barcelona event, sources tell Reuters news agency, after a handful of major telecom companies decided to give the conference a pass over coronavirus fears.

Deutsche Telekom, Ericsson, Vodafone, British Telecom, Nokia and Orange have already announced that they will not be attending the annual event, despite assurance from Spanish officials that the necessary precautions have been taken to ensure the wellbeing of all attendees.

Still, industry heads say that a gathering of so many international guests is just too risky.

Since its outbreak late last year, the coronavirus has spread beyond China‘s borders to more than 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 Hottges posted on LinkedIn.

Health concerns are completely legitimate, he said, adding: “To take this risk would be irresponsible”. 

The event, which is the telecom industry’s biggest get-together, is scheduled to take place from February 24 to 27. It typically draws more than 100,000 visitors to Barcelona and is estimated to boost the Spanish economy by half a billion dollars.

On Wednesday, the Global System for Mobile Communications (GSMA) convened a virtual meeting of its board, consisting of 25 industry bosses, to discuss its members’ options, according to two people with knowledge of the matter. GSMA said it was monitoring the “fast-changing situation” while working with Spanish and global health authorities to ensure the wellbeing and safety of all participants. “We have already implemented additional health measures ahead of MWC 2020 and will continue to seek expert medical advice on a frequent basis,” it said in a statement,

Barcelona’s Mayor Ada Colau said on Wednesday that she wanted to send a “message of calm”, insisting the city was ready to host the event. The country’s health officials have also made assurances that there is no need to declare a health emergency. Spain’s Health Minister Salvador Illa and Catalonia’s regional councilor in charge of health, Alba Verges, are expected to answer questions later today.

Major Chinese exhibitors, led by Huawei, vowed to attend, ordering at-risk staff to isolate themselves and drafting in replacements from elsewhere to attend events and network with clients.

The GSMA has 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.

The 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 who they meet there.

In China, total infections have hit more than 44,600, health officials said. The number of deaths on the mainland rose stood at more than 1,100 by the end of Tuesday.

Source: Reuters