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ASA Ban Three UK TV Ads for Misleading UK’s Fastest 5G Claim

Wednesday, July 21st, 2021 (8:42 am) - Score 1,896

A complaint raised by rival mobile operator Vodafone has today resulted in the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) banning two TV adverts for Three UK, one of which “misleadingly” claimed to offer the “UK’s fastest 5G network” (broadband speed) and the other claimed they were the only “real 5G” operator.

The only real surprise here, for us, is that it took the ASA this long to rule on the adverts. As we’ve said many times before, broadband ISPs and mobile operators that try to make bold claims about being the best, most reliable, cheapest or fastest at something in adverts tend to fall flat on their faces due to the difficulty of accurately substantiating such claims, particularly in the highly variable world of mobile performance.

Part of the reason why Three UK has long felt they could claim to be the “fastest” or only “real” 5G operator is because they had significantly more spectrum frequency for it (140MHz) than their rivals, including 100MHz of which that sat in a single contiguous block (somewhat of a sweet spot for 5G) around the 3-4GHz bands. More spectrum often means better speeds, although Ofcom’s recent auction has since re-balanced things a bit (here).

However, even before Ofcom’s auction, it was a fact that spectrum frequency alone is only part of the battle. You also need to be able to feed that spectrum with plenty of capacity, and to have a network with the right setup to deliver the signal/performance effectively. At the time of these adverts, which were seen in March 2020, most of the independent benchmarks were showing rivals as being ahead of Three UK on 5G performance.

Just to make matters worse for Three UK, the ASA last year banned a couple of different adverts for using (or abusing) the “real 5G” claim (here), although today’s ruling suggests that they didn’t quite get the message. The ASA decided that both of the TV adverts mentioned earlier should be banned because their claims had not been substantiated.

ASA Ruling (REF: A20-1066834 Hutchison 3G UK Ltd)

We acknowledged that large contiguous spectrum holdings could allow a mobile operator to provide somewhat higher peak speed and a moderate increase in capacity. We also acknowledged that where a 4G network had lots of customers relative to its capacity, there could be challenges to delivering a high level of consistent performance through carrier aggregation. However, we understood such a scenario, if it applied, would in practice likely be limited to a relatively small number of hotspots. Consumers who were with other mobile operators, who could use carrier aggregation because they had less 5G spectrum than Three, would still be able to reach similar speeds as consumers on a contiguous spectrum and have a similar overall experience.

In addition to the factors mentioned above which affected peak speed, coverage, average speeds and network reliability were also relevant and important, as they affected the overall consumer experience on a day-to-day basis, whereas the circumstances in which peak speeds were currently achievable were very limited. We therefore considered that spectrum size was only one of a number of important factors which determined network speed and quality. We acknowledged the claim was related to the capability of Three’s network, but we considered it would be understood as being about the actual real world benefits experienced by consumers. We also understood 5G take-up across the market was small at the time the ad appeared and that while more material differences could appear in future as take up increased, at that time, differences in 5G capacity between networks were unlikely to result in material differences in the experiences of end users.For those reasons, we concluded that the claim that “Three was building the UK’s fastest 5G network” was likely to mislead.

As set out in point 1, we considered that Three had not shown that consumers on their 5G network would experience a significantly better 5G service versus other operators. Differences in the 5G services between networks, at the time the ad was seen, were unlikely to result in material differences in the experiences of end users such that Three’s service could be described as offering “real” 5G, in contrast to their competitors. For those reasons, we concluded the claim “Join the future on Three, it’s real 5G” was likely to mislead.

The ASA thus banned both TV adverts and told Three UK not to show them again in their “current” form. In the future, warned the ASA, Three would need to provide “sufficient evidence” to support such claims. All of this comes only a few short months after the ASA banned yet another advert from Three UK, which was found to have misleadingly claimed to offer the “Best Network for Data” (here).

For the record, the ITU’s “minimum requirements” for a 5G network under their IMT-2020 specification (here), in a dense urban mobile environment, require networks to deliver at least 100Mbps download, 50Mbps upload and 4ms (milliseconds) of latency. On that basis, with a particular focus on latency, we’re not sure if any of the UK mobile operators could yet claim to be offering “real 5G“, at least not nationally.

However, it’s worth reading the full ruling above (as linked) as it also touches on some other complex aspects of 5G network design, such as the impact of existing 4G services on current performance (Standalone 5G vs Non-Standalone 5G etc.).

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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. Damien says:

    Good. They also claim to have won the Uswitch network award 2021 – That needs to be looked into I am sure some money changed hands somewhere.

    Their 4G is slower than their 3G – so go figure about 5!

    1. Mark Jackson says:

      Looking at various benchmarks, their 4G is not on average slower than their 3G, it is in fact quite a bit faster like most operators. But then recent data on 3G is harder to come by as most people now connect via 4G.

    2. M says:

      So your accusing Uswitch of accepting bribery to influence its awards, because you don’t like 3? I think you’ll find no investigation is required as that just personal made up opinion. Do they need to investigate everyone else they give awards to in the communications sector?

    3. Mike says:

      Threee is very location specific, some areas you get 50Mbps, others your lucky to get 0.5Mbps.

  2. Sam says:

    I’ve had a few scenarios where 3G will be faster than 4G.
    I believe Three have taken on too many customers.
    At times (in many towns) I am finding Three unusable and switch over to my Vodafone sim, the speeds and reliability is just that much better and I hate to say it!

    1. M says:

      That’s interesting, I’ve gone back to Smarty from Voxi as although speeds were faster on Voxi, it was not as reliable, for instance I can walk the dog and stream a video all the way round on Smarty with no issues and the phone jumping between 3G and 4G, Voxi would cause the videos to buffer despite speed tests apparently showing it as faster.

    2. Sam says:

      @M my Vodafone sim is actually with Voxi.
      I guess it’s area dependant and also depends on which device you’re using, which bands are support by the device and which bands your network uses.

  3. Ig Og says:

    Lying works as proved by this govt.

  4. GNewton says:

    But who will ban the ASA for promoting false “fibre broadband” adverts?

    1. Adam says:

      Give it rest JNeuhoff please.

    2. Buggerlugz says:

      Absolutely. BT’s “fibre” product (eg: FTTC when the last 500 yards is via 50 year old copper twister pair) is right up there with Three’s “only real 5G” marketing BS.

      Not one of the carriers is delivering real 5G (Stand-alone without using an existing 4g channel/s) and until they do 5g will never deliver what they all market it being capable of.

  5. Connor says:

    I thought they dropped the whole “real 5G” branding when they launched NSA 5G, I remember initially they went on about it only ever using 5G spectrum which never ended up being true.

    Though I will say in my area their 5G performance is above and beyond what everyone else is offering with gigabit speeds being very obtainable

  6. Alex comerford says:

    Interestingly three seem to have a much larger 5g footprint than others. Where I live in oxford I get 400Mbps+ down and 100Mbps+ up on Three. The only place I’ve visited with Vodafone 5g is Kew where I got 190Mbps down and 20Mbps up.

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