This year’s edition of MWC Barcelona, the world’s biggest mobile industry gathering, has been canceled less than two weeks before its opening, devastated by the pull-out of major exhibitors over concerns about the coronavirus outbreak.

“With due regard to the safe and healthy environment in Barcelona and the host country today, the GSMA has canceled 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,” said John Hoffman, chief executive of the GSM Association, in a statement late on Wednesday.

An operator cleans up a window at the entrance of the Fira Gran Via, venue for the MWC Barcelona trade show. (Picture: EPA-EFE)

London-based GSMA, organiser of the event, represents the interests of more than 750 mobile network operators around the world. “The GSMA and the host city parties will continue to be working in unison and supporting each other for MWC Barcelona 2021 and future editions,” Hoffman said.

Some of MWC Barcelona’s largest participants to recently withdraw include telecommunications equipment suppliers Nokia and Ericsson, as well as mobile network operators Vodafone Group, Deutsche Telekom, AT&T, BT Group, Orange and NTT Docomo.

Other companies that have also dropped out of the event include smartphone vendors Vivo and LG Electronics, chip suppliers Intel Corp and Nvidia, as well as Facebook, Sony Corp and Amazon Web Services, the cloud computing subsidiary of

The GSMA’s decision not to push through with the event, which was to be held from February 24 to 27, has come as the coronavirus has so far infected more than 44,000 people and killed more than 1,100 in mainland China, with cases reported in more than 20 other countries.

It also comes just days after the GSMA assured participants that MWC Barcelona would go ahead as planned. On Sunday, the group announced the event had “more than 2,800 exhibitors strong” and that stringent measures were being adopted, including banning travellers from China’s Hubei province – the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak. More than 109,000 attendees were expected at the trade show.

“MWC is the event where major mobile tech companies discuss their vision and show off their capabilities,” said Nicole Peng, vice-president of mobility at research firm Canalys. “Its cancellation will, no doubt, result in losses for vendors who had big plans at the event.”

Peng indicated that “it would be difficult to find a bigger stage than MWC this year.”

Before the cancellation, Chinese smartphone giants Huawei Technologies, Oppo, Xiaomi Corp and ZTE Corp were expected to take part in MWC Barcelona, but with a smaller contingent, according to persons with knowledge of the matter.

The first-ever cancellation of MWC Barcelona, which ran as Mobile World Congress since 2006 until a rebranding last year, also deals a big blow to efforts by telecoms carriers, device makers and various tech providers to further promote 5G technology amid new mobile network roll-outs this year.

Workers install a banner with hygiene recommendations outside the Fira Gran Via, venue for the annual MWC Barcelona trade show in Spain on February 12. (Picture: AFP)

With peak data rates up to 100 times faster than 4G, 5G is expected to serve as the connective tissue for the internet of things, autonomous cars, smart cities and other new mobile applications.

MWC Barcelona serves as “a catalyst to facilitate the industry’s momentum,” said Bryan Ma, vice-president of client devices research at IDC.

“Many suppliers, including those from China, leverage MWC to connect with customers from around the world,” said Ma. “It is a critical show for telecoms operators to get together with suppliers of infrastructure, handsets, services and so on.”

It is unclear whether scratching MWC Barcelona would have a knock-on effect on the GSMA’s satellite MWC events in Shanghai at the end of June and Los Angeles in October, as global health experts remain divided on whether the coronavirus outbreak has peaked or worse is to come.

Canalys’ Peng said many companies, both big and small, may need some time to recover from losses incurred in the canceled event in Barcelona.