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Canceling MWC hurts the smaller companies that count on the event for business.

Photo: Angel Garcia/Bloomberg via Getty Images
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MWC Barcelona 2020 is canceled. Here’s who gets hurt.

The LGs and Ericssons of the world will be fine.

With MWC canceled over coronavirus fears, businesses big and small are scrambling to rewrite their 2020 roadmaps to account for the loss of a crucial networking and deal-making event.

Though the center of the epidemic is a continent away, several major attendees, including AT&T, LG, Sony and Facebook, had announced over the last week that they wouldn't be attending, as the numbers of people infected with the virus grew to 45,000 people, with more than 1,100 people already dead, primarily in China. Ultimately, the risk proved too much for the event.

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Like many tech journalists, I (Mike) am disappointed to no longer be spending a week on the Catalan coast with roughly 109,000 of my closest friends. Beyond missed parties on yachts and announcements of new zany foldable phones, experts say some of the biggest effects won’t be felt by the LGs and Ericssons of the world. It'll be the smaller firms that were counting on MWC.

"I believe the larger companies will get on airplanes to visit all their customers around the globe," Patrick Moorhead, the founder of Moor Insights & Strategy, said. "It's the smaller companies that will be hurt, because they don't have the resources or the people to canvass their customers."

The most interesting things I've found at MWC often come out of serendipity. I've enjoyed wandering the Fira Gran Via's halls and coming across a random networking company that's figured out how to make a VR headset wireless. Or the smaller startups backed by national economic business groups like La France Tech or the GREAT Britain Pavilion.

"It's not the big deals — those deals will still go through," said Charlene Li, founder and senior fellow of The Altimeter Group. "But if you're a country on the fringe, it's harder to get the attention of people. I was there two years ago, and there were so many startups there that I never would have come across."

Gene Munster, managing partner of Loup Ventures, agrees that the smaller companies and startups will feel the effects of canceling MWC the most.

"The smaller companies, it does have an impact because that's their shot to make an impact with the bigger companies. Now they have to wait a year which is an eternity in the lifetime of a startup," he said.

Experts agree that the GSM Association made a wise public health decision by canceling the show. The biggest cascading impacts will be on the local economy, but more broadly, it will affect how the mobile phone industry makes all the deals, which usually happen on the sidelines of the conference.

The FT reported that Barcelona pulls in close to €500 million, or $543 million, as the crowds descend upon the city, and that the conference creates some 14,000 temporary jobs. I've seen the full effect of that, with dozens of smiling MWC staff in bright-colored jackets at every major train station in the city, offering to help dazed German, Japanese and American telecom execs and the odd journalist figure out which Fira convention center they're trying to get to.

Beyond the city, large conferences like MWC are among the few moments when just about every major provider and buyer of telecom technologies are in the same place at once. The theme of many recent MWCs has been how we're just about to enter a new era of communication with 5G; 2020 felt like the year where that was actually going to happen in earnest. Networks around the world started rolling out their first 5G offerings last year, and with the backlash Huawei is experiencing in many Western nations, a canceled show for the likes of Ericsson, Nokia, Cisco and other non-Chinese 5G tech providers will likely come as a blow.

Li and Munster, however, contend that the rollout of 5G in the U.S. won't be affected by the cancellation of MWC. All four major U.S. carriers, for instance, already have some sort of 5G service coverage available across the country. However, 5G has yet to live up to hype spun at tech conferences like MWC and CES, with promises of significantly faster speeds, more reliable connections, and visions of connected cities and effortless autonomous driving.

"[5G] is like a locomotive," Munster said. "The tracks are already getting laid. It's not going to get affected by Mobile World Congress."

Many of the biggest consumer-facing companies will still be hosting the press conferences that would've taken place at MWC, just doing them remotely. Sony is now launching its new phones on a YouTube livestream; LG will host a press conference at a later time. And no matter how big the company, throwing off the timing is likely to make a difference in the impact an announcement will have. "It takes the wind out of the sails of any announcements," Li said. "It's going to take an entire cycle out of the innovation game because of the big splash."

But for the very biggest companies, losing MWC might not be that big of a deal: Samsung has debuted its latest phones at the conference in the past, but this year chose to host an event in San Francisco this week instead. Apple doesn't go to MWC in an official capacity and tends to show off its new phones in the fall. Chinese manufacturers like Xiaomi and Oppo have other channels to get devices in the hands of loyal customers at home.

The GSMA does also host MWC conferences in Shanghai and Los Angeles; both are as of now expected to go ahead this year, in June and October, respectively. Although traditionally smaller affairs, it's possible the association bumps up activity at the two conferences to counterweight the loss of Barcelona. Either way, as of now, the GSMA is saying MWC Barcelona 2021 will go ahead as scheduled.

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