Mobile World Conference Cancelled Over Coronavirus Fears

After numerous major vendors pulled out, the organizers pulled the plug

What: While the spread of the Coronavirus has been largely contained to China, fears over travel and 100,000 people from all over the world milling about in a contained space as the the virus slowly spreads across borders led to the stunning cancellation of Mobile World Congress Barcelona.

How: As news of the virus’s progression spread, major companies pulled out of the show until the organizers had no choice but to respond.

Why Do You Care: While designed for industry professionals and media, Mobile World Congress is a showcase for all the next big things in mobile technology, products you will eventually buy and use. This throws the schedule for demonstrating and releasing those technologies into disarray.

MWC in 2012
MWC in 2012. Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

What once seemed inconceivable, cancelling a four-day, international technology conference for any reason, is now a startling reality. There will be no Mobile World Conference Barcelona this year after the GSM Association cancelled the event over coronavirus fears.

A showcase for mobile products and technologies from around the world, Mobile World Congress (MWC), which was scheduled to run from February 24-27 in Barcelona, Spain, is closely tracked by industry professionals, media, and consumers who want to stay on the bleeding edge of mobile technology. Each year, roughly 100,000 mobile professionals attend the event.

The walls started to crumble as carriers like AT&T and Vodafone pulled out over coronavirus (now known as COVID-19) concerns. Soon other major companies like Nokia and Samsung either pulled out or vastly scaled back their presence. Initially, MWC organizer GSMA said it would wait until Friday to make a final determination. According to one report, the GSMA was lobbying the Spanish government to declare a public health emergency, which ostensibly would’ve made it easier to cancel the event and, perhaps, collect some sort of insurance to cover lost costs.

By Wednesday, however, with even more companies pulling out, the GSMA had no choice and announced the cancellation of the event.

In a statement posted on the event web site, the GSMA wrote, “With due regard to the safe and healthy environment in Barcelona and the host country today, the GSMA has cancelled MWC Barcelona 2020 because the global concern regarding the Coronavirus outbreak, travel concern and other circumstances, make it impossible for the GSMA to hold the event.”

The immediate implications for the thousands of companies preparing to exhibit at the show are clear: loss of funds for booth, travel, and personnel costs; loss of public awareness for their products and technologies, and a lack of clarity for how the companies will get the word out in the meantime. For consumers, the impact probably won’t be felt until weeks or months from now as mobile products they might have read about on their favorite tech blog fail to materialize in the marketplace.

The decision has been met with shock, understanding, and some displeasure. As longtime mobile tech analyst Sascha Segan put it on Twitter, “For the first time in many years, I will not be going to Barcelona. I'm utterly heartbroken, but there are phones to review here in NY. Vendors, please contact me regarding doing calls or meetings here in NY. I still think cancelling #mwc20 was wrong decision, but it's made.”