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MWC will take place in person in Barcelona, but Google, Ericsson and others won't be there

A growing list of companies have announced they're withdrawing from the mobile conference, which will take place in June.

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Ericsson has consistently had one of the biggest booths at MWC in Barcelona. 

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The organizers of Mobile World Congress plan to proceed with an in-person conference this summer. But a growing list of companies won't be in Barcelona, Spain. Google, which tends to have a large presence through its Android business, became the latest major exhibitor to bow out of the in-person portion of MWC. It joins Ericsson, Sony, Nokia and Facebook, which earlier in March said they wouldn't be heading to Barcelona. 

"Following our current COVID-19 travel restrictions and protocols, Google has made the decision to not exhibit at Mobile World Congress this year," the company said in a statement. It added that it will still participate virtually.

Google's departure from the in-person component of MWC deals a blow to the organizers. Google tends to take over a significant area in the Fira convention center, promoting Android and sending attendees on hunts for pins and other Android-branded swag. Android powers the majority of the world's phones, and it's an important component of the mobile show. While Google is the latest company to sit out the Barcelona in-person show, it's likely not going to be the last. 

MWC brings together companies from across the world, with many using the weeklong trade show in Barcelona as the place to introduce their newest smartphones and talk up advancements in 5G and other wireless technology. MWC is key to the mobile industry for two big reasons: It's where vendors get attention for their newest devices and it's where companies hammer out deals behind the scenes. The show typically takes place in late February and early March, but GSMA delayed this year's conference to June because of COVID-19. 

The first phone maker to state publicly that it doesn't plan to attend the show was Sony Mobile, which confirmed in mid-March that it would have no physical presence at this year's event.

"Sony Mobile has taken the decision that it will not be participating in MWC 2021," said a spokesman for the company in a statement. "As the world increasingly shifts towards digital and online opportunities to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), Sony Mobile will communicate in ways that can deliver our exciting product news to a wider audience."

Nokia also said that same day that it wouldn't attend the show, but that it would instead participate in the event virtually. "The health of our employees, customers and partners is of paramount importance to us," company said in a statement. "Given the international nature of the event and with the global vaccine roll out still in its early phases, we have made the considered decision to instead participate in only the virtual event."

They're joined by Ericsson, which was the first company to confirm that it wouldn't be in attendance this year. The Swedish telecom networking giant, consistently one of the biggest exhibitors at the world's largest mobile show, on March 8 said it wouldn't attend MWC 2021 because of the coronavirus pandemic. 

"In view of the continuing impacts from Covid-19 and our primary consideration towards our people, their health and well-being, we have decided not to participate at MWC 2021," Ericsson said in a statement. "The decision, whilst regrettable, reflects our precautionary approach to managing the pandemic from a people and travel perspective whilst vaccination programs are rolled out globally."

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The GSMA, the organizer of MWC, said in its own statement provided to Mobile World Live that it "respects" Ericsson's decision to withdraw from the show and noted that it plans to create a virtual platform to support companies and journalists unable to attend in person. 

Ericsson didn't say whether it will participate in MWC virtually.

Facebook, another regular attendee, will also skip this year's show, due to a policy it put in place last year in which the company said it wouldn't attend in-person events through the end of June 2021 due to the pandemic. 

In a normal year, about 100,000 people attend the weeklong conference. MWC expects up to 50,000 people in person this year. 

"We appreciate that it will not be possible for everyone to attend MWC Barcelona 2021," GSMA said Tuesday. "This is why we have developed an industry-leading virtual event platform that will ensure everyone can enjoy the unique MWC experience."

Meeting in person

MWC was one of the first major global events to get canceled last year as the novel coronavirus became a full-blown pandemic. About a week before journalists and companies descended on Barcelona in February 2020, the show's organizers called off the confab. That was largely because many big companies said they wouldn't attend.  Ericsson was one of the first companies pull out of MWC 2020

At the time, hosting a virtual show was a novelty. MWC ended up being canceled entirely, and mobile companies had to figure out their own launch events. Since then, CES, Apple events and various other tech product launches have taken place entirely online. Samsung last month held its fourth virtual Unpacked event of the pandemic

But other conferences have moved back to in-person, if scaled-down, events. IFA in September included an on-site component in Berlin, with about 5,000 attendees versus its normal 200,000. And in February the GSMA held its MWC Shanghai with about 17,000 attendees. There were no confirmed cases of COVID-19 on site, the organization told Bloomberg. Still, MWC in Barcelona could draw many more attendees from more regions of the world, increasing the risk of infection at the same time vaccines are being rolled out. 

Ericsson's announcement came only hours after the GSMA outlined its health and safety precautions for the in-person conference at Barcelona's Fira Gran Via.

Attendees will have to show negative COVID-19 tests before being allowed to board planes to Spain, and they'll have to produce a negative rapid test on site and get their temperatures checked to access the MWC venue. Attendees have to be retested every 72 hours, and the My MWC app will notify them of an upcoming expiration. They'll also have to social distance, wear masks and complete daily health questionnaires in the conference's app. 

Inside the venue, GSMA will implement one-way traffic flow at entrances and exits and set up a "touchless" environment where badges are digitized. The Fira has increased sanitation and has set up a new fresh air ventilation system to improve airflow. It also will have more medical staff on site.

Many other major exhibitors have said they're monitoring the situation. AT&T, one of the biggest carriers in the US, said in mid-March that it still plans to attend in person, though it's closely watching infection rates and the vaccine rollout. 

Qualcomm, the world's biggest 5G chipmaker, said in a statement that while its incoming CEO, Cristiano Amon, is slated to deliver a keynote address at MWC, it "will continue to monitor the situation and work with the GSMA in the run up to the event." Samsung also is reviewing options regarding on-site participation. 

As of March 31, COVID-19 has infected over 128 million people and killed 2.8 million.

CNET's Katie Collins, Eli Blumenthal and Richard Nieva contributed to this report.