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ASA Ban Three UK’s Misleading Mobile “all-you-can-eat data” Adverts

Wednesday, July 27th, 2016 (10:48 am) - Score 5,150

Mobile operator Three UK’s long standing promotions of “all-you-can-eat data” on their top 4G tariffs have been branded “misleading” by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) after two people complained that restrictions were applied to their use (e.g. Tethering cap).

Several website promotions and an online display advert, all of which featured the promise of “all-you-can-eat data“, were highlighted by the complainants. One of the complainants claimed that Three UK restricted the amount of data that could be used during peak periods and the other reported being cut off after using 4GB of mobile data (Tethering). However Three UK defended itself by saying that the claim was not the same as “unlimited“.

The operator, which also said that “99% of P2P services facilitated illegal downloads” (not sure where they got that figure from, but perhaps they’ve not used XBox Live, Steam, World of Warcraft or Microsoft Updates etc.), added that its TrafficSense system allocated a certain amount of bandwidth at peak times (3pm to midnight) to peer-to-peer (P2P) file-sharing and Tethering.

In practice, Three UK said their peak time bandwidth allocation for P2P only applied to “illegitimate file sharing” at peak times and on average 14,000-15,000 customers (out of a customer base of around 8.8 million) undertook file sharing at peak times. But the operator also said they could not guarantee that a legitimate user would never be affected at peak times if they engaged in lawful P2P activity.

As for the 4GB cut-off complaint, Three said that, unlike some other operators, they allowed Tethering on their “all-you-can-eat” plans, although at the time the ad was seen it was indeed subject to a limitation of between 4GB and 12GB depending on the type of plan. Three UK believed that this was made clear in the adverts, although the ASA disagreed.

ASA Ruling (REF: A15-308458)

4GB Cap Complaint

With regard to ads (b) and (c), we understood that the complainant who had been cut off after using 4GB of data had been using their allowance for tethering … We considered that, where tethering was allowed, a limitation on the amount of data that could be used in this way, even if made clear as part of a transactional journey or in another part of an ad, contradicted the claim “All-you-can-eat” by representing an immoderate restriction on legitimate data use, and that the presence of the cap should therefore have been part of the headline claim.

Traffic Management Complaint

While we acknowledged that legitimate use of P2P technology identified by consumers would be ‘whitelisted’, we were concerned that legitimate services not yet identified by customers (who may not know to do so) or notified to Three would therefore be subject to traffic management. Consequently, we considered that Three could not demonstrate that TrafficSense solely slowed down illegitimate users and were concerned that a number of legitimate users could also be adversely impacted by the policy.

In light of that, we considered that Three needed to show that the slowdown experienced by those subject to traffic management was moderate only. We noted, however, that Three had not provided any evidence to demonstrate the impact of the policy on their users. Further, we noted that Three had themselves acknowledged that the effect of TrafficSense on P2P users was likely to be significant. In the absence of adequate evidence to show that all P2P users on their network were illegitimate, or that the impact of TrafficSense on those affected was moderate only, we considered that Three were not able to substantiate the claims that their service was ‘all you can eat’ and concluded that the ads were misleading.

As usual the ASA banned the adverts in their current form and warned Three UK to ensure that future ads did not use “unlimited data” claims, including “all-you-can-eat data,” unless they could “demonstrate that TrafficSense only affected illegitimate use of the service or that any effect on legitimate use was moderate only

The ASA also told Three UK that any caps on Tethering use as part of otherwise unlimited data plans must in future be included in the headline claim.

Separately the ASA upheld a number of complaints for several other Three UK adverts after they were found to be “unsuitable for viewing by children” (here), although this isn’t a strictly telecoms or broadband related complaint and so we won’t summarise it.

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By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on Twitter, , Facebook and Linkedin.
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13 Responses
  1. Chris P says:

    they ban “all you can eat” meaning 4Gb when tethered yet permit unlimited being x Gb and Fibre broadband being copper coax.
    it does not make any sense. With all you can eat you can expect to have some left on your plate yet unlimited should truly mean just that.

  2. James vincent says:

    Regards Wong with these people. Data adverts are in relation to data used on the handset. Tethering is completely. ASA shouldn’t have acted on this.

    1. Mark Jackson says:

      In fairness I do think that Three UK needed to be clearer with their messaging and many people won’t be familiar with the term “Tethering”. If there are restrictions, then set them out clearly.

    2. James vincent says:

      I think they are set out clearly. The sales people need to make people aware of this and people should know what’s part of their plan and what isn’t. I don’t agree with the ASA

    3. Curious says:

      “people should know what’s part of their plan and what isn’t”.

      How are people supposed to know what is part of their plan, if they aren’t told by the company?

    4. James vincent says:

      Curious – that’s why i said the sales people need to tell customers. There’s nothing wrong with the poster ads.

    5. James vincent says:

      Also it’s simple enough to go online and find out. It’s the customers responsibility to find out info. If not able to go online then ask these questions. It’s lazyness. There’s too many people that know how much they pay but don’t know what’s included in their Plan. Three have always been the Operator that have explained things better than the others. Though the others have improved these days.

  3. James vincent says:

    *correction, *What’s wrong…

  4. Mike Kea says:

    I get 12gb of tethering, plus unlimited 12gb for normal use.
    I use my phone a broard, with no problem.three are very good.

  5. dragoneast says:

    I don’t get this “misleading” bit. All advertising is misleading. That’s what it is. If it gave you all the information it wouldn’t be advertising, but a statement of facts. So why “ban” some and not the rest?

    I know, we like playing stupid games, and if we didn’t then most of us would be out of a job. It’d be a much better world, though. Personally I find that I can find out all the information for myself easily enough so as not to be “misled”. That’s because I can be bothered, though. And if I don’t, then it’s nobody’s fault but my own. Pure laziness.

  6. Gary Churchill says:

    I have an all you can eat data plan when I try to tether a message comes from three saying I have to pay for that as an add on

    1. Liam says:

      It will three uses Layer 6 packet inspection to detect tethering usage, it will also detect if you place the sim card in another device as such a “Mi-Fi or Dongle” it will display a page stating something along the lines of ; are you using your sim in another device which it isn’t designed for, and ask you to purchase a add-on for tethering.

      Of course everything can be bypassed but that isn’t something which we are discussing here.

  7. Liam says:

    I think the ASA was harsh against Three UK as no-other providers offers anywhere near as much data as the “1000GB” soft cap which is in place on “AYCE” packages. Of course there’s a major difference between “Unlimited” and “All-you-can-eat” with the term “All-you-can-eat” food company would allow customers to eat what they want bearing in mind everyone can only each so much, and these company can refuse entry. They clearly state that plans come with x amount of tethering usage, and it’s clear on the website and the terms and conditions.

    I remember when Three UK used to implement a “80GB” cap then it got changed to “450GB” and now the soft cap is “1000GB” but can you really complain?

    Yes The One Plan went but Three couldn’t sustain it there was never enough spectrum to continue offering it and masts where getting heavily congested all the time.

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