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GSMA cancels MWC 2020 following exhibitor exodus over coronavirus

Following an exodus of exhibitors and attendees that ultimately proved too significant for organizers to ignore, the GSMA today canceled wireless industry trade show MWC 2020 due to concerns related to the growing coronavirus pandemic. The show was originally expected to start in Spain on February 24, with some related events scheduled for the preceding days.

Previously known as Mobile World Congress, MWC has become the top gathering place for members of the cellular industry, attracting roughly 100,000 attendees to its flagship February event in Barcelona. Satellite MWC events in Los Angeles and Shanghai have historically enabled smaller groups of companies, including regional players, to meet and make keynote-caliber announcements later in the year.

In a statement, the GSMA said that the “global concern regarding the coronavirus outbreak, travel concern and other circumstances, make it impossible” to hold MWC Barcelona 2020, regardless of the “safe and healthy environment in Barcelona and the host country today.” The organization says that it will work with the city to hold the event in 2021 “and future editions,” without suggesting it would postpone or reschedule this year’s Barcelona edition.

The word “impossible” was likely selected for legal reasons. Under certain circumstances, legal contracts can be unilaterally exited if it becomes impossible for one party to perform. Bringing 100,000 people together for a conference during an international pandemic may not have been strictly impossible, but it may well have been “impracticable,” which means hugely impractical or all but impossible, given that attendee fears and travel restrictions have already impacted large numbers of attendees.

Exhibitors began to scale back their plans for MWC as coronavirus quarantine, infection, and death tolls grew, leading to both health concerns and broader travel issues. While companies such as ZTE and Samsung said that they were scaling back personnel at the show due largely to travel restrictions, Ericsson kicked off a wave of departures due to uncertainty regarding the health and safety of attendees. Numerous other companies, including Amazon and Intel, followed suit, with Nokia and several major European wireless carriers joining the list today.

Until now, the GSMA maintained on multiple occasions that the show would go on, though it acknowledged the potentially disruptive effects of exhibitor departures and more stringent screening requirements on attendees. The organization banned people from one Chinese province from attending, and announced a collection of sanitization protocols designed to limit the potential of viral transmission.

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