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Mobile World Congress in crisis

Intel and Amazon join a growing list of exhibitors pulling out, as a “quarantine” of attendees from China throws the world’s biggest mobile event into disarray, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK

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It started with the withdrawal of big names like LG Electronics, Ericsson and ZTE from the world’s biggest launchpad for mobile technologies, due to fears of the coronavirus spreading. On Monday, Japanese giants Sony and NTT DoCoMo announced their withdrawal, followed by the world’s largest computer chip maker, Intel, and social media giant Facebook. Nokia phone maker HMD Global has also added its name to the list,

In addition, the organisers of Mobile World Congress announced that all travellers who have been in China will need to demonstrate proof they had been outside of China 14 days prior to the event, which runs from 24 to 27 February, with media events occurring from the 23rd. That means no one from that country who had not yet left its shores before Monday will be allowed to attend – instantly reducing the visitor count by more than 5,000. 

However, the knock-on effect of the ban is becoming apparent this week, as other exhibitors cancel, too. Already, a major sponsor of the event, graphics chip-maker Nvidia, added its name to the cancellations. It was the first American company to withdraw, followed by Amazon, which announced on Sunday it would no longer attend. Amdocs withdrew on Monday, and Facebook and Cisco on Tuesday. Nokia handset makers HMD Global withdrew on Wednesday.

An image from Mobile World Congress 2019 provides an unintentionally chilling preview of humans staying away from this year’s event. Photo courtesy GSMA

Sony, which usually has a large stand at MWC, issued a statement on Monday announcing its withdrawal.

“Sony has been closely monitoring the evolving situation following the novel coronavirus outbreak, which was declared a global emergency by the World Health Organization on January 30th, 2020,” it said on its website.

“As we place the utmost importance on the safety and wellbeing of our customers, partners, media and employees, we have taken the difficult decision to withdraw from exhibiting and participating at MWC 2020 in Barcelona, Spain.

“The Sony press conference will now instead take place at the scheduled time of 8:30am (CET) on February 24, 2020 as a video via our official Xperia YouTube channel …”

NTT DoCoMo published a similar message on its website, in Japanese.

It read, in part: “NTT DOCOMO is committed to the safety of customers, partner companies and employees on a daily basis. At present, the impact of the new coronavirus is expanding …. In consideration of the safety of the visitors, partner companies and staff members, we decided to cancel the exhibition.”

NTT is the parent company of the major South African information technology integration provider Dimension Data.

Intel echoed these sentiments: ““The safety and wellbeing of all our employees and partners is our top priority, and we have withdrawn from this year’s Mobile World Congress out of an abundance of caution.”

Facebook released a similar statement on Tuesday.

Three of the world’s biggest handset manufacturers, Samsung, Huawei and Xiaomi, have scaled back on their activities at the event. Chinese smartphone brand Vivo, ranked sixth in the world, pulled out on Tuesday morning. Taiwan-based TCL cancelled its MWC press conference, but said it would still exhibit. Leading Taiwanese mobile chip-maker MediaTek also announced it was withdrawing.

With many executives unlikely to be able to attend, the participation of most Chinese companies is in the balance.

The GSMA issued a statement on Sunday night in an attempt to allay fears, announcing, among other:

  • All travellers from the Hubai province, the epicenter of the Coronavirus outbreak,  will not be permitted access to the event, covering MWC Barcelona and its side events, Four Years From Now (4YFN), xside and YoMo;
  • All travellers who have been in China will need to demonstrate proof they have been outside of China 14 days prior to the event (passport stamp, health certificate);
  • Temperature screening will be implemented;
  • Attendees will need to self-certify they have not been in contact with anyone infected.

John Hoffman, CEO of GSMA Ltd, said in his statement: “I know that the Coronavirus has created disruption, in particular for exhibitors and attendees from around the world, including the 5-6,000 (5-6%) who have historically attended from China. Our sympathy goes to all those affected. We are grateful for the preventative measures our Chinese exhibitors have put in place, notably ZTE and Huawei.”

He confirmed, however, that the GSMA was moving ahead as planned and would host MWC Barcelona from 24 to 27 February 2020. 

“While the GSMA confirm some large exhibitors have decided not to come to the show this year with others still contemplating next steps, we remain more than 2,800 exhibitors strong,” he said.

He acknowledged that the situation could change.

“While further planning is underway, we will continue to monitor the situation and will adapt our plans according to developments and advice we receive,” he said. “We are contending with a constantly evolving situation, that will require fast adaptability.”

At a press conference on Friday, 7 February, Spanish health minister Alba Vergés confirmed that the region of Catalonia, of which Barcelona is capital, was not a public health risk zone. 

Click to the next page below to read about extraordinary measures put in place by the GSMA.

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SA’s Internet goes down again

South Africa is about to experience a small repeat of the lower speeds and loss of Internet connectivity suffered in January, thanks to a new undersea cable break, writes BRYAN TURNER

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Internet service provider Afrihost has notified customers that there are major outages across all South African Internet Service Providers (ISPs), as a result of a break in the WACS undersea cable between Portugal and England 

The cause of the cable break along the cable is unclear. it marks the second major breakage event along the West African Internet sea cables this year, and comes at the worst possible time: as South Africans grow heavily dependent on their Internet connections during the COVID-19 lockdown. 

As a result of the break, the use of international websites and services, which include VPNs (virtual private networks), may result in latency – decreased speeds and response times.  

WACS runs from Yzerfontein in the Western Cape, up the West Coast of Africa, and terminates in the United Kingdom. It makes a stop in Portugal before it reaches the UK, and the breakage is reportedly somewhere between these two countries. 

The cable is owned in portions by several companies, and the portion where the breakage has occurred belongs to Tata Communications. 

The alternate routes are:  

  • SAT3, which runs from Melkbosstrand also in the Western Cape, up the West Coast and terminates in Portugal and Spain. This cable runs nearly parallel to WACS and has less Internet capacity than WACS. 
  • ACE (Africa Coast to Europe), which also runs up the West Coast.  
  • The SEACOM cable runs from South Africa, up the East Coast of Africa, terminating in both London and Dubai.  
  • The EASSy cable also runs from South Africa, up the East Coast, terminating in Sudan, from where it connects to other cables. 

The routes most ISPs in South Africa use are WACS and SAT3, due to cost reasons. 

The impact will not be as severe as in January, though. All international traffic is being redirected via alternative cable routes. This may be a viable method for connecting users to the Internet but might not be suitable for latency-sensitive applications like International video conferencing. 

Read more about the first Internet connectivity breakage which happened on the same cable, earlier this year. 

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SA cellphones to be tracked to fight coronavirus

Several countries are tracking cellphones to understand who may have been exposed to coronavirus-infected people. South Africa is about to follow suit, writes BRYAN TURNER

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From Israel to South Korea, governments and cell networks have been implementing measures to trace the cellphones of coronavirus-infected citizens, and who they’ve been around. The mechanisms countries have used have varied.  

In Iran, citizens were encouraged to download an app that claimed to diagnose COVID-19 with a series of yes or no questions. The app also tracked real-time location with a very high level of accuracy, provided by the GPS sensor. 

In Germany, all cellphones on Deutsche Telekom are being tracked through cell tower connections, providing a much coarser location, but a less invasive method of tracking. The data is being handled by the Robert Koch Institute, the German version of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

In Taiwan, those quarantined at home are tracked via an “electronic fence”, which determines if users leave their homes.  

In South Africa, preparations have started to track cellphones based on cell tower connections. The choice of this method is understandable, as many South Africans may either feel an app is too intrusive to have installed, or may not have the data to install the app. This method also allows more cellphones, including basic feature phones, to be tracked. 

This means that users can be tracked on a fairly anonymised basis, because these locations can be accurate to about 2 square kilometers. Clearly, this method of tracking is not meant to monitor individual movements, but rather gain a sense of who’s been around which general area.  

This data could be used to find lockdown violators, if one considers that a phone connecting in Hillbrow for the first 11 days of lockdown, and then connecting in Morningside for the next 5, likely indicates a person has moved for an extended period of time. 

The distance between Hillbrow and Morningside is 17km. One would pass through several zones covered by different towers.

Communications minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams said that South African network providers have agreed to provide government with location data to help fight COVID-19. 

Details on how the data will be used, and what it will used to determine, are still unclear. 

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