GSMA sensibly softens its stance on MWC 2020 refunds

When the GSMA was forced to cancel Mobile World Congress coz of coronavirus it indicated that no refunds would be given, but a month later it has seen sense.

Attendee tickets will be 100% refunded and exhibitor have a couple of options. Those who spent up to £5,000 can get a full refund and those who spent more than that, which is presumably the vast majority, can get half of their cash back, but with a maximum of £150,000. That won’t be much consolation to the likes of Ericsson, who will have spent millions, but that’s academic since nobody who bailed out before the show was cancelled qualifies for a cash refund anyway.

Which brings us on to option two, which all exhibitors qualify for regardless of spend and cancellation status. It involves a cumulative fees credit of 125 per cent of 2020 paid fees over three years as follows:

  • MWC2021: 65 per cent fees credit
  • MWC2022: 35 per cent fees credit
  • MWC2023: 25 per cent fees credit

On top of that the rates for MWC 2021 will be the same as those for 2019.

“The GSMA values the loyalty and support our members and partners in the mobile ecosystem worldwide,” said John Hoffman, CEO of GSMA Ltd. “We are grateful to have the full support from our operator Board of Directors and already have formal exhibition support for MWC Barcelona 2021 from NTT DOCOMO, Orange, Telefonica and Vodafone. More than ever, our sincere thoughts remain with those affected around the world in these trying times.”

We chatted to a few exhibitors and, on the whole, they seem pretty happy with the package the GSMA has come up with. The 125% refund over three years seems like a no-brainer for any company that is committed to exhibiting anyway, but our conversations indicate that many will prefer to take the cash now in order to try to rescue their 2020 marketing plans, or maybe just to help with cashflow as the business world grinds to a halt.

“The GSMA’s decision to do this is fantastic, more than fair, and really underscores the leadership they show in our industry,” said Patrick Van de Wille, Chief Communications officer at regular MWC exhibitor Interdigital. “Mobile World Congress is the absolute highlight of our marketing year, not just because it drives so much visibility but also because the timing and importance of it gives our research teams a clear set of goalposts. A decision like the one they announced today means that, for us, MWC will continue to provide that focal point for the foreseeable future.”

The GSMA was in a tight spot over this. If it dug its heels in and strictly enforced its Ts and Cs it would have alienated a lot of exhibitors and, given how the coronavirus pandemic has exploded, faced a potential PR disaster as many of its partners struggle for survival. On the other hand, giving full refunds to everyone was presumably to great a burden for even the GSMA’s generous reserves to handle.

It probably could have got away with a 100% discount over two years, so the extra 25% was a good touch. The decision to punish companies that were more decisive than the GSMA itself over the health of their employees leaves a bit of a bad taste in the mouth and sets up potential disputes over what, precisely, constitutes a cancellation. But on the whole this seems like a good compromise and ensures the future health of MWC without asking exhibitors to pay too much of the cost.

The device launches you didn’t hear about at MWC

Mobile World Congress usually has a few extravagant marketing forays to launch flagship devices and 2020 was  going to be no different… except that the event didn’t happen.

For some, this might have come as a relief, we’ve all seen the less than spectacular launches, but for others this is a nightmare come true. At Omdia’s substitute event, Principal Analyst for devices Wayne Lam gave us a breakdown of what you could have expected at the Barcelona bonanza.

First and foremost, no-one should have expected anything from Apple. The iGiant never makes as much as a ripple at the Catalan celebration, saving itself for a Cupertino cornucopia in the Autumn, though that might be under threat. Rumours have emerged over the impact of the coronavirus on the 5G flagship launch, a potentially worrying development should 5G want to explode this year.

While the fortunes of the industry should not be fixed on the performance of one company, Apple has a tendency to act as an industry catalyst. The cult like following it commands as the farmer supreme of brand cultivation should not be underappreciated. This is an iconic brand and any impact on its 5G launch could have a measured detrimental effect on the success of the connectivity craze in 2020.

That said, outside the Apple crop, Lam pointed towards the semiconductor industry as another major catalyst for 5G performance and success. In the Qualcomm offices, the third generation of 5G products have recently been announced and should be featured in devices towards 2020-end. Most importantly, new product launches in this field are boasting of integrated chipsets, allowing for more affordable devices. MediaTek and Samsung are also pushing forward in this segment, providing much needed competition.

Another area to keep an eye on is the development of storage components. 5G opens up a massive data pipe for the digital economy, and while it is important for the modem to be up to scratch, the rest of the components also have to be on a level playing field. Lam suggested this is a field which is currently maturing.

That said, with the progression of the semiconductor segment comes the potential for device manufacturers to crack the mainstream market. 2019 and 2020 has already seen the launch of numerous devices, though these are largely for the rich and famous. Mere peasants are not allowed into the unaffordable 5G club just yet, though this could change over the coming months.

Interestingly enough, Lam commented that OPPO believed it would be taking centre stage with its Find X2 5G. The company went big on advertising, splashing the brand everywhere including in the Barcelona arrivals lounge. This was a brand which was hoping to test the status quo, moving up from challenger to rival with an aggressive marketing campaign, but coronavirus put an end to that. However, this is a device which is worth keeping an eye-on for the future.

The Samsung Galaxy S20 Series is another interesting launch as it now sets the standard. Although the smaller device is not compatible with mmWave airwaves, all of the handsets in this series feature 5G antennas. This is a series which sets the bar high; if you haven’t got 5G, are you tier one?

On the Huawei stand, visitors would have been offered a few interesting surprises. Firstly, an improved foldable device, the Mate Xs, but also the Honor View 30 Pro. The Honor View 30 Pro is a very interesting product, as while it features the same Kirin 990 5G chipset as more upper-market devices, the price point would have been in the $500 range. This is a device which had the potential to open 5G up to the masses.

That said, Lam highlighted that he had been testing a Huawei device over the last few days and the absence of Google services was a considerable inhibitor. Lam question whether this device could be successful outside of China.

Elsewhere across the show, Sony were going to make a splash in an attempt to overturn its mobile woes, TCL were offering another affordable device, HCL were once again poised to lean on the nostalgia associated with the Nokia brand, Xiaomi were going to push their promising position again, while Realme were also posturing towards making a surprise move into the 5G market.

This years MWC was set to be a very busy time for the devices segment potentially creating a springboard for mass market penetration, but alas no. Small, regionalised events will have to act as a substitute, as there is little other option, though the impact on 5G progress remains to be seen.

Huawei launches a very expensive foldy phone with no Google Play support

As is the fashion this week, Huawei converted its MWC press conference into a ‘virtual’ one and unveiled a phone that it’s hard to imagine anyone buying.

The Huawei Mate Xs is an evolution of the Mate X, the launch of which last year was muted to the point of being apologetic. Like its predecessor it’s a foldy phone that, somewhat counterintuitively, has its screen on the outside of the hinge. It’s also slightly asymmetrical, with a 6.6-inch main screen and a 6.38-inch secondary one that combine to form an 8-inch screen thanks to the magic of trigonometry.

As you would expect Huawei is ascribing all manner of bells and whistles to its new shiny thing. They include its most advanced chip, the octa-core Kirin 990 5G, a super-duper camera and even a specially designed cooling system called Flying Fish that has microscopic crevices and everything.

There’s just one problem, well two actually. The biggest problem is that it runs on Huawei’s in-house operating system: EMUI 10, which is derived from the Android kernel, but isn’t full-fat Android and isn’t supported by Google. That means it doesn’t run proper Google apps, including the play store itself, which is where you get all the others.

EMUI may well be a fine OS in its own right but, to paraphrase Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, it’s deficient in the Play Store division to the tune of one. Even if the apps Huawei has encouraged its own ecosystem to develop are comparable to Google ones, why would anyone choose to take such a leap into the unknown when there are plenty of other vendors that can offer excellent phones with the full Android experience?

There is a small market for simple phones with stripped-down Oss in some developing economies, but this phone is very much at the other end of that spectrum. In fact Huawei wants us to shell out no less than £2,299 for this substandard app experience. Even if the Mate Xs folded into an origami swan, that price would be hard to justify.

Apparently in anticipation of this launch Google published an Android support document entitled Answering your questions on Huawei devices and Google services. “Due to government restrictions, Google’s apps and services are not available for preload or sideload on new Huawei devices,” it explains, warning users away from trying other means of getting Google apps on their Huawei phones. The usual security reasons are given.

This feels like a symbolic launch. Huawei can’t be expecting more than a handful of people to drop over 2k on a compromised phone, so this seems to be a statement of defiance. Huawei is saying it’s business as usual and it’s not going to let its persecution at the hands of the US government cramp its style. We respect Huawei’s spirit in that respect, while at the same time calling into question its judgment in doing so in such an expensive and futile way.

Today would have been the first day of MWC 2020

Under normal circumstances we would be writing this from Ericsson’s stand in hall 2 of the Fira Gran Via in Barcelona.

Ericsson traditionally likes to kick off its MWC at 8am on the Monday morning, which can be challenging for those who have failed to be 100% professional over the preceding weekend. Typically CEO Börje Ekholm would offer a broad update of the state of play at Ericsson and the industry on the whole, with maybe a piece of news or two slipped in to keep journalists on their toes.

We would then have found a spot on its cavernous stand and jumped on its wifi (assuming a telecoms event had proven itself capable of providing adequate telecoms infrastructure for once), to tap our account of the morning’s proceedings. Ericsson’s stand has traditionally been an above-average source of free food and drink for those both lucky enough to have been invited in and whose name also made it onto the list given to the gatekeepers.

Because those two things don’t always coincide, you see. Despite the absolute annual predictability of MWC, the mechanics of managing access to those stands that have gatekeepers always seem to confound even the most seasoned show campaigners. If anything the situation is usually even worse at the only stand bigger – Huawei’s. Many a precious MWC hour has been spent sat on the floor outside that stand while harried Huawei representatives scurry around trying to work out who the hell this bedraggled hack is and how much of a threat they pose to their inner sanctum.

Saturday night activities permitting, we would have already been given good presentation by Nokia, which likes to go off-site on the Sunday to steal Ericsson’s thunder. The format has tended to be similar to Ericsson’s however, with perhaps a touch more theatrics. Traditionally we have tended to write up Nokia’s event in whichever bar we could persuade to show the rugby, accompanied by a tentative first beer of the day.

Since Tuesday and Wednesday evening have always been late ones in the past, savvy MWC veterans have learned to use the Monday evening as a great opportunity to catch up on some kip and give their livers a breather. The following two or three days would have been spent traipsing from stand to stand, gratefully grabbing coffees when available and forcing down barely edible sandwiches. The culmination would have involved sitting in the departure lounge of Barcelona airport exchanging knowing glances with addled fellow travellers.

None of that is happening this year, of course. A few companies have tried to extract some residual value from the week through ‘virtual MWCs’, but it’s hard to get too enthusiastic about such things. Most industry people we have spoken to feel lost and aimless this week, but we’re a tough lot and will bounce back quickly. In the meantime, please join us in raising a glass of Estrella to the ghost of MWC 2020, it’s the least we can do.

Huawei is still the leader on 5G commercial contracts

Chinese vendor Huawei went ahead with its big pre-MWC event in spite of everything and the standard levels of self-promotion took place.

Just as with last week’s Ericsson event, the cancellation of MWC due to the threat posed by coronavirus cast a pall over Huawei’s pre-show extravaganza. In fact Huawei had taken the trouble to reassure attendees yesterday that all precautions had been taken to protect them from any viral nastiness, including the self-quarantine of any Huawei employees travelling from China. We’re pleased to report an almost total absence of sneezing at the event.

The first keynote was delivered by the President of Huawei’s Carrier Business Group Ryan Ding. He started by announcing in an admirably steady voice, while 4G delivers information, 5G delivers emotion. Ding served up the expected slide featuring photos of white boxes Huawei had intended to fondle at MWC, which included the claimed lightest ever 5G base station, weighing in at a mere 25 kilos.

The most interesting slide to us, however, contained an update on the number of 5G commercial contracts Huawei has won, which now total 91. This puts them ahead of the 81 announced by Ericsson last week and well ahead of the 63 most recently announced by Nokia. Appropriately enough, Huawei’s event was many times larger than Ericsson’s, while Nokia has had no pre-MWC event that we’re aware of.

Within that 91, more than half (47) are in Europe, which is likely to trigger US President Trump more than ever, 27 are in Asia and 17 are elsewhere in the world. There were some further boasts and an attempted demo of a live 5G broadcast from the BBC, which sadly lacked audio. Ding concluded with the announcement of a $20 million investment in its UK partner innovation programme.

The undoubted highlight of the morning, however, was a panel discussion on how 5G can enable a bunch of different industries. The reason it was so great was that it was moderated by no less than Telecoms.com Deputy Editor Jamie Davies, who shrugged off a rugby injury to bring his characteristic wit and insight to the chat.

The general tone of the panel, which featured five spokespeople from UK industry, was cautious optimism about what 5G brings to the table. It was note that in its current form it offers little more than a speed boost, but things should get interesting when low-latency kicks in with standalone 5G. There was lots of speculation about what can be done to drive consumer engagement in 5G, but few concrete answers.

These sorts of big corporate chest-beating events aren’t really designed for journalists as everything (bar the panel discussion) is very scripted and rehearsed. Having said that, apart from the deal winds, Huawei didn’t overdo the self-aggrandizing. It remains in a precarious geopolitical position and claiming leadership of everything, whether true or not, is probably not a great look for Huawei right now.

GSMA tells MWC 2020 exhibitors it won’t be providing refunds

Out of pocket MWC exhibitors are being directed to a clause in their terms and conditions that absolves the GSMA of liability.

Two MWC 2020 exhibitors from opposite sides of the world independently contacted Telecoms.com to inform us that they have been received a communication from the GSMA, which runs the event, regarding the financial consequences of its cancellation. They were both directed to clause 21.10 of the Standard Terms and Conditions for Exhibition, Advertising, and Sponsorship, which reads as follows.

The Organizer shall not be liable to the Company for any losses, costs, damages or expenses (whether incurred under contract, tort or otherwise) suffered or incurred as a direct or indirect result of an event beyond the control of the Organizer, including without limitation, any act of God, disease or epidemic, strike, lock-out, industrial disturbance, failure of suppliers, act of public enemy, war, labor dispute, terrorist act, blockade, riot, civil commotion, public demonstration or governmental or local authority restraint nor shall the Organizer be liable to refund any fees.

The GSMA communication stressed that no refunds will be given, since this is a ‘force majeure’ situation, i.e. circumstances beyond the GSMA’s control. It goes on to say, however, that the GSMA is working on ‘a proposal’ designed to make the best of a bad situation and maintain good relations between the GSMA and its MWC commercial partners. We invited the GSMA to provide a statement on this matter but it declined.

Rather alarmingly, the communication also refers to the situation created by the cancellation of MWC 2020 due to the coronavirus threat as ‘uninsurable’. Surely a lot of insurance exists precisely to cover ‘acts of God’ such as this. If the GSMA’s insurers are telling it that they’re not liable for any of the cost of the cancellation then that seems like a pretty rubbish policy.

Once more the GSMA was keen to stress that it’s a not-for-profit organisation and that it finds itself in a precarious financial position as a result of the cancellation. This communication seems to be designed to position the decision not to refund as something that is out of the GSMA’s hands and builds on the Bloomberg interview as a call for industry solidarity in these trying times.

There is plenty of reason to feel sympathy towards the situation the GSMA finds itself in. Of course it didn’t want to cancel the show and, having been forced to do so by circumstances outside its control, it now faces an existential crisis. It’s also in the interest of exhibitors that value MWC to do their bit to ensure the event returns next year.

Where the GSMA find it most difficult to inspire its exhibitors to take one for the team, however, is in the matter of what it costs to attend MWC. Every year we speak to exhibitors at the event who moan about how they feel exploited and, while the GSMA may be a not-for-profit, nobody doubts MWC Barcelona itself makes a massive profit.

The telecoms industry does need to show solidarity at a time like this, but it works both ways. It would be counter-productive in the long term for exhibitors not to accept their fair share of the cost of such an exceptional piece of collective bad luck. But at the same time the GSMA should ask itself if maximising the profit it makes on MWC is the best way to help the industry is was created to support.