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Three UK Advert Banned for Misleading “Real 5G” Mobile Claim

Wednesday, March 25th, 2020 (7:41 am) - Score 13,879

Complaints by BT (EE) and Vodafone have today prompted the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to ban two adverts for Three UK’s new ultrafast 5G based mobile (mobile broadband) network, which they found had “misleadingly” claimed “If it’s not Three, it’s not real 5G.”

Regular readers of ISPreview.co.uk might recall that this issue first cropped up in August 2019 last year (here), which followed the somewhat limited early launch of Three UK’s new 5G broadband network (initially they only launched a mobile broadband service and their smartphone one didn’t follow until early 2020).

At the same time BT (EE), Vodafone, an independent consultant in mobile telecommunications and 5 members of the public all complained about two related adverts – on Twitter and in the national press, which both pushed the line: “If it’s not Three, it’s not real 5G.”

In its defence, Three UK argued that they were the only “real” 5G network because they had significantly more spectrum frequency for it (140MHz) than their rivals (EE, O2 and Vodafone could only harness a smaller block of 40-50MHz in the 3.4GHz band), including 100MHz of which that sat in a single contiguous block (known as the sweet spot for 5G). But the ASA had other thoughts.

ASA Ruling (REF: G19-1030062)

We considered that, at the time the ads were seen in August 2019, and at the time of writing in January 2020, the choice of mobile phones which could support 5G services was still very limited and that take up of 5G services was still at an early stage. We understood that, all other factors being equal, greater bandwidth would allow a provider to support greater traffic capacity.

However, because take up was still so limited, differences in 5G capacity between networks were unlikely to result in material differences in the experiences of end users at the time the ad appeared. Given that, we considered Three’s 5G service was not, at that time, likely to be so significantly better than other 5G services as to render them not “real” 5G, or such that there was little value in obtaining those services.

We therefore concluded that the claim “If it’s not Three, it’s not real 5G” was likely to mislead.

As usual the ASA banned the adverts and told Three UK to “ensure future ads did not mislead by, for example, using wording which suggested that the service offered by competitors did not provide the significantly faster speeds that 5G was expected to provide.” A quick look at the operator’s 5G website shows that they’re still making the same claim today and in big bold print.

Now if you want to get really picky about this then we have the ITU’s “minimum requirements” for a 5G network under their IMT-2020 specification (here), which in a dense urban mobile environment would require the network to deliver at least 100Mbps download, 50Mbps upload and 4ms (milliseconds) of latency.

We can’t speak to the latency times yet (not enough data for a solid comparison), but we have seen EE, Vodafone and Three UK all delivering above this for 5G downloads and uploads within their initial patches of coverage (heck they’ve shown the same on 4G too, albeit only in a few areas).

In fairness though the ITU does also require that 5G must be able to harness 100MHz of “bandwidth” (spectrum frequency), which at present is indeed something that only Three UK can do; at least until Ofcom’s forthcoming spectrum auction (this was due imminently but may now be delayed by COVID-19).

Generally we’d agree with the ASA that it’s probably a bit too soon for any of the operators to be making such claims. Likewise having more spectrum doesn’t help much unless you can also deliver the same level of coverage as your rivals (Three UK are trailing behind) and can feed every cell with enough data capacity to get the most performance (we’ve yet to see this fully proven with enough independent testing, but EE seem to be doing a better job here).

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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.
Leave a Comment
26 Responses
  1. Antoine says:

    Says the team who sold a “3.99G” and “pre-5G” when they didn’t have the licenses yet

  2. Chris Lurker says:

    All about generating a buzz about 5G.

    I’d have let the operators fight it out in the media, generating more 5G buzz.

    OFCOM still regard Virgins copper coax network as being fibre so 3 claiming to be the only real 5G isn’t as much a stretch of reality as that.

  3. joe says:

    “In fairness though the ITU does also require that 5G must be able to harness 100MHz of “bandwidth” (spectrum frequency), which at present is indeed something that only Three UK can do”

    Which of course the ASA didn’t care about

  4. Billy says:

    Why would the virus prevent the government selling fresh air to the highest bidder?
    It’s not like a real auction where people turn up and kick the tyres before bidding.
    I’m sure the networks will have people working from home, who are prepared to offer obscene amounts of money for rf spectrum permission.

    1. joe says:

      Because some1 would claim the disease affected their ability to make representations and then find a judge to throw the whole thing out….

  5. Michael V says:

    It was a bit soon for Three to launch that ad. I think users need to see really fast speeds before they re-launch the ad. It would be great to see Three beat the other Operators in speed & knock EE off the top spot. Someone has to, EE have had their time.

    1. Jamie Powell says:

      3 are consitantly slow day in day out. I have 5g here three max at 120 and EE’s is well over 1 gigabit. On average I see 500Mbit on EE around London and 15Mbit on three’s 5G. If 3’s dont wanna spend the money, then they will never be the “true 5g” provider. Their 4g is so bad I cannot even make a call. Enough said.

  6. Tim says:

    There is not really any point in 5G right now. Range is way to limited and speeds on 5G are comparable to good LTE-A Pro.

    What we really need is more LTE-A Pro coverage with 3+ carrier aggregation. At least that is compatible with most phones that are currently already in every bodies pockets (or glued to their faces).

    1. Thomas Brennan says:

      I have S20 Ultra 5g on 3 network,located Streatham SW166NU. My phone is latched on 5g, however when doing speed test is shows test is on LTE-A with download speeds @ 65mbps. When I was a beta tester for 4g years ago on 3 I was getting 70mbps as a beta tester before it was launched to everybody when it dropped down to 30mbps. Last month for a couple of weeks I had Huawei 5g hub which was getting 250mbps on 5g but I return the item back as I was getting my new S20b phone which I was going to use as a mobile hotspot instead of the hub. Why am I getting sluggish speeds (be it faster than 4g) on 5g for my mobile (signal is all bars). Outside I am getting same speeds 1 mile radius from my postcode

  7. Tom says:

    I am fighting three for whole march now. my galaxy fold 5g is not getting 5g signal and they do not know how to fix that, so their 5g is not even real. I spoke to so many people already and i waited so long for them to launch the damn thing.

    1. Unknown_M says:

      Hi Tom, are you even in a 5G area? Coverage is extremely limited at the moment.

      Secondly, ensure you have 5G enabled in your settings and thirdly do you have the latest software on the phone.

      But, I’m more inclined to think you are not in a 5G zone.


    2. Tom says:

      i am in 5g area, i checked on their map, they checked and they said that i should have 5g there. all the settings are correctly set, i have been speaking to both three and samsung.

    3. Leex says:

      Do you have the eu/International version of the 5g phone (if its usa version or the possible fake 5g Korean version it won’t work in the uk)

    4. Tom says:

      they didn’t sell 5g fold in the us, anyway i bought it directly from samsung uk.

    5. Thomas Brennan says:

      Not until I updated my s20 ultra 5g firmware software did I get 5g signal which was only a coupe days when the latest firmware was available. What’s your postcode ?

  8. Dawid Brejnak says:

    In my flat there are 2 options for fast internet…Virgin fiber or 3 mobile. I was with Virgin for 11years and cancelled becuse they become too expensive. Three showed up with AI cube for £24 pm, which was bargain. My contract started July 2019, let say it was great until i have started getting issues with internet near December. I am in Maidenhead where their head office is, so 4G signal is always max. Internet will simply cut off and no signal at all! While my android 4g mobile with sim only from Three works just fine on mobile data!! The only solution is reboot( 4 to 5 times! Yes that many, because after each one there is no signal!! ) This issue became weekly and then daily. In February 2020 I have asked for replacement, so Sim and device was replaced. Sounds great? Not really, this device came with similar problem. CUBE signal was fine but I am suffering from 10 to 30 sec. Internet drop out on daily basis on all devices. Example if you trying to open page, ( any page!) it wont open load and you have to tap again and again. On any of the devices in household. Regardless wifi or wired connection. While sim only 4g android mobile data works just fine!! Even tried to reset device to factory settings. Didnt help either! So like we all do, dialed 333 and spoke to their support team. Here is the best part!! Every time I called, there is always network issue in my area or they keep passing my ticket to 2 or 3 level support team and I have to wait for days for someone to call me back! One guy frkm support said “its normal for router device to go idle if not in use!!” 20 devices are connected at least 3 stream, so nothing idle here you moron! Are you serious here?? I was laughing at this shit advice!! I took me whole month of waiting for calls to get replacement device and every time explaining same story!! and I was even asked to pay £12 for 3rd device! Like is my fault your service is terrible! Now I am on 3rd device and its still crap pages not loading like they should! And this is reality, dpd driver who delivered 3rd device and pick up old one said ” so many people having issues with AI cube! I am doing replacement round like this sometimes daily..Blood great! Now I am stuck with crap internet until July 2022. I can’t cancel contract without paying cancellation fee £250, because your sevice is shit!! Signal is full but AI cube as device Sucks big time. So my advice, go elsewhere pay more and you will get better service and technical support! With Virgin my internet was never down for more than day or 2max! Three =whole month with tons of excuses and unhelpful support team who read from Script like robots! I have already cancelled my sim only contract with You and wont be long other contract will follow soon! #stayawayfrom3

    1. Andrew Clayton says:


      There’s this thing called “paragraphs”, you should give them a spin some time…

    2. Paul Lawson says:

      I have three 4g I did it when they had unlimited data 2yr contract 6mths at a tenner and then 20 a month thereafter. I bought an inexpensive 4g router on Amazon which I configured for three. Works really well certainly works better than our landline. Looked at three’s broadband but looked a bit pricey.

    3. Unknown_M says:

      I know you shouldn’t have to but in this case but your own device and stick your SIM card in it, have you tried your phone sim in it? Three could be limiting your connection due to excessive data usage….

  9. Haitham says:

    UK three is the best among other networks especially EE their service is rubbish. EE missold me the 5G sim while i got nothing. Besides, when i switched from Three to EE last year i found a big difference re call quality etc

    1. Savio Fernandes says:

      3 doesn’t have proper 4g how come the are advertising 5g.
      I have to switch on to 3 g to get a decent signal.
      You are talking Bs

    2. Michael V says:

      @Haitham. I kinda gotta agree. Three have great coverage across South Wales [Inc: VoLTE] I hardly see 3G HSPA. Speeds are not the fastest but most don’t need more than 30mbps down on a phone.
      In my village I have really fast consistent speeds, Up & Down on their home 4G broadband service.

      @Savio Fernandes.
      Three like the others do have proper 4G, not quite sure what you mean there… Their 4G network over 1800mhz. Only devices from Three support VoLTE/4G voice. Makes me think that those who say Three are crap may just need a phone upgrade…

      EE have really poor outdoor coverage where I live across 2G, 3G, 4G, 4Gvoice & slow speeds. But I’m not gonna say they are crap!

    3. CJ says:

      @ Michael V
      No, poor 4G speeds for some people on Three are nothing to do with needing a phone upgrade.

      I’ve read plenty of posts from people who get excellent speeds on Three. Just because that’s different to my experience, I don’t immediately assume they must be mistaken. The network clearly has enough capacity in many locations.

      It’s also true there are many locations where their network is totally congested and needs upgrading urgently.

      For the last few weeks I haven’t been able to get above 1 Mbps in the evening on 4G. Last night was 0.3Mbps, completely unusable. All four networks cover my home from the same mast, but Three is the only one that hasn’t installed carrier aggregation or re-farmed 3G 2100 spectrum over to 4G yet. EE are using 4CA, even O2 are using 3CA so it’s no coincidence Three is the slowest 4G network by far. In fact for people in this area, upgrading their phone from a 2CA device would actually improve their EE or O2 speed, but not Three!

      Fortunately I know to switch my Three sim to 3G only mode, which is far less congested, but any claim their network is superior to others would be ridiculous in my area.

    4. Leex says:

      Lack of CA use is annoying in some locations that really need it on 3, ee do it sometimes as well (Vodafone seem Very aggressive at deploying CA and find it typically everywhere unless signal is very low)

  10. Nathan says:

    I’m with three and i have yet to see a consistent 3g connection never mind even seeing 5g one on my 5g phone it’s a joke, they should be banned from saying they have 4g 5g it’s that bad.

  11. Gig says:

    4ms?? if any operator manages to do that I would personally stop my home internet and get unlimited 5G. I have seen upwards of 1.5gig download from online videos but least ping I saw was 28ms.

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