LONDON (AP) — The world’s biggest wireless trade fair was thrown into doubt Wednesday after more big tech companies and mobile carriers including Nokia, Vodafone and Deutsche Telekom pulled out over worries about the viral outbreak from China.
They’re the latest in a string of tech companies to pull out of the event scheduled for Feb. 24-27. Ericsson, Amazon, Sony, LG, Cisco and Intel have already decided not to attend.
Nokia said Wednesday it has decided to withdraw from Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain “after a full assessment of the risks related to a fast-moving situation.”
The Finnish telecom infrastructure company said “the health and well-being of employees was a primary focus” and that canceling its involvement was a “prudent decision.”
HMD Global, a separate Finnish company that makes Nokia phones under license, also said it’s pulling out. So did German carrier Deutsche Telekom, which said it “wasn’t an easy decision for us.” Vodafone said it was dropping out “after careful consideration” while Britain’s BT said canceling was “the most responsible decision.”
The departures of Nokia and Ericsson leave China’s Huawei, a major sponsor of the fair, as the only remaining major network gear maker still planning to attend.
Organizers sought to hold out against growing pressure to cancel Mobile World Congress, an annual tech extravaganza that had been expected to draw more than 100,000 visitors from about 200 countries, including 5,000-6,000 from China.
The GSMA, the wireless trade body that organizes the fair, said it’s monitoring the virus situation closely, including meeting regularly with global and Spanish health experts and its partners to ensure the well-being of attendees.
“We have already implemented additional health measures ahead of MWC 2020 and will continue to seek expert medical advice on a frequent basis,” the group said.
Organizers are caught between risking potential backlash over public health concerns if they go ahead or facing big financial losses if they cancel, said Stephen Mears, a research analyst at Futuresource Consulting.
Mears and his five-person team were planning to attend but are now thinking of shortening or even canceling their trip as many participants they wanted to meet won’t be there, including those from China, which accounts for an increasing share of the global smartphone and mobile network industry.
“It’s becoming less and less valuable for people like us to attend if we’re not able to get meetings with the high level executives,” he said.
Spanish authorities tried to promote a message of calm as they scrambled to keep alive the trade show, which they say generates 473 million euros ($516 million) and more than 14,000 part-time jobs for the local economy.
The Catalan regional health chief, Alba Vergés, said there’s a “very low risk of the coronavirus” in the region of Catalonia, where Barcelona is located, and that authorities are “completely prepared to detect any cases.” Four suspected cases have all have proven negative, she said at a press briefing.
“There is no public health reason to cancel any event in Catalonia or Barcelona, including the Mobile World Congress,” Vergés said. “If the companies make their own decision, we have to respect that, but we are here to explain this from a public health perspective.”
Joseph Wilson in Barcelona contributed to this report.