Last year’s Mobile World Congress was a miniaturized and skewed version of the event that could once expect to draw more than 100,000 people to wintery Barcelona. Not even delaying it until June, when outdoor life and vaccine campaigns had forced COVID-19 into a summer retreat, could persuade more than 5,000 people outside Spain to take the trip.
Most of the venue’s hangar – like halls were as deserted as the mall in The morning of death. A shrine to the public cloud, built by a one-woman consulting firm called TelcoDR, provided a rare glimpse of human activity. It even managed to host a small concert with Jon Bon Jovi. And yes, he performed Living on a prayer.
The hope was then that normal service would resume in early 2022. But months later, another letter of the Greek alphabet had been squeezed together to describe the latest COVID-19 “variant of interest”, and the World Health Organization warned that Omicron would infect half of all Europeans. Once again, the possibility of holding a major international event is being questioned.
The cancellations also appear to have started. Japanese electronics giant Sony has become the first major exhibitor to withdraw from the physical show, according to Spanish press reports (Sony’s press office did not respond to Light Reading’s request at the time of publication). It seems unlikely that it will be the last.
That said, the GSM association, the organizer of the MWC, insists that Sony was not even booked to exhibit at this year’s show. “GSMA was surprised to see Sony’s comments today about MWC22 Barcelona,” a spokesman said via email, referring to Spanish press reports on January 13. “While this is disappointing, we respect that strategic business decisions from the organization in 2020 influenced change and wish them all the best.”
The experience of American fairs does not provide much encouragement in terms of participation. Last week’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas attracted only 40,000 visitors, a fraction of the 180,000 who made the trip pre-pandemic. The National Association of Television Program Executives has canceled a Miami show scheduled to begin next week. And press reports show that the Sundance Film Festival, Grammy Awards and E3 (a video game conference) have also been scrapped.
There is no suggestion that GSMA join their ranks. It has been determined since October to attract more than 1,500 exhibitors to Barcelona by the end of February and would be in financial pain if the event was canceled or massively reduced. Due to the bulk of its revenue for MWC Barcelona and satellite shows, it has already had to lay off part of its workforce following 2020’s cancellation of the show and last year’s zombie apocalypse.
But no one seriously expects to see 100,000 face-masked participants tumble into Fira, so socially distanced from each other as mudslingers. If the relationship to pre-pandemic levels were identical to CES, would the show look at around 24,000 visitors ?? not much improvement over the 20,000 it welcomed last June.
MWC participation over the years
However, there are some positive signals. Swedish Ericsson, which is usually at the forefront of the payout queue, is planning a big comeback after two years of jabbering from Zoom. It will descend on its usual Hall 2 stand ?? the one that served as the Bon Jovi concert venue and cloud temple last year ?? probably with its usual lubrication table of base station equipment. On the telecommunications company’s side, Deutsche Telekom and Orange expect some of their leading technology executives to defy Catalan air.
Physical participation by Ericsson could make GSMA boss John Hoffman roar at Abbas Happy New Year in a late night karaoke session with colleagues. Not only is the Swedish supplier ultra-careful. It is also one of the main exhibitors along with Finnish Nokia and China’s Huawei, and therefore one of the main reasons why other visitors come. If it’s confident enough to issue statements just a few weeks before the show, others will also plan to go.
Omicron could even cause a turnaround. “It goes without saying these days that our priority is health and well-being for our people, customers and other stakeholders,” an Ericsson spokesman said via email. “We will continuously monitor the development of the pandemic and the advice of global health authorities prior to the event and base our decisions accordingly.”
But another round of cancellations could condemn MWC to years of poor attendance and virtual replacements for the physical jamboree. If travel is considered dangerous in the middle of Omicron, when vaccines are widely available and deaths have dropped, can it always look unsafe ?? at least while COVID-19 is around. Few sensible politicians now believe it can be eradicated like smallpox and it will continue to mutate. Living with it means either accepting a new risk (a small risk for most) or never meeting again. Economically, only the cloud companies really benefit.
The world is no doubt less secure than it was in June last year, when Ericsson was not ready to travel. In the days before Omicron, the weekly COVID-19 deaths in the UK averaged 28, down from 3,423 in January 2021. They were up to 242 last month and have continued to rise in the last two weeks.
Like many thousands who will take part in this month’s Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne, Ericsson may have come to the rational conclusion that circumstances will not improve significantly for years. It apparently still considers the physical MWC to be worthwhile and may have simply shrugged off the company’s kind of long COVID ?? a fear and lethargy to return to normalcy. It has been the trendsetter since the pandemic began. Unless its plans change, GSMA must hope it still is.
UPDATE: This story has been changed since it was first published, to include input about Sony from GSMA.
?? Iain Morris, International Editor, Light Reading