If it’s not accurate, it’s not real advertising – ASA slaps down Three’s 5G claims

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has ruled against the ‘if it’s not Three, it’s not real 5G’ ad campaign following complaints from rivals.

Jamie Davies

March 25, 2020

6 Min Read
Three UK 3UK maidenheadstore-front-hi

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has ruled against the ‘if it’s not Three, it’s not real 5G’ ad campaign following complaints from rivals.

BT, Vodafone, an independent consultant in the telco industry and five members of the public lodged complaints against the advertising campaign, which was incredibly prominent throughout the last 6-12 months, and the ASA agrees. From here on, Three is not allowed to suggest or imply rival 5G networks are not real.

“Overall we considered they would interpret the ads to mean that the 5G services offered by other providers would not provide those significantly faster speeds and that there was little value in obtaining 5G from them,” the ASA ruling states.

“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.”

Although this is a campaign which has spanned across multiple mediums, the complaints were directed towards a certain tweet and a wraparound advert which featured in the Metro, a free daily newspaper distributed prominently on the UK’s transport systems. The adverts featured mock characters such as Special Man and Burt Simpson, along with the statement ‘if it’s not Three, it’s not real 5G … We’re building the UK’s fastest 5G network’.

This is a creative and amusing approach to promote a topic which is anything but, however, it is directly and intentionally misleading. Of course Three’s rivals offer real 5G, and Three should be punished (although the ASA does not have this power), as these statements are taking advantage of a currently ill-informed general public; the vast majority do not understand what 5G actually is, therefore are likely to take such statements as gospel. It is irresponsible.

“This is part of the cut and thrust of mobile advertising,” said Gabriel Brown, Principal Analyst at Heavy Reading. “Technically, the claim ‘if it’s not Three, it’s not real 5G’ doesn’t stand up, but having 100 MHz of contiguous spectrum for 5G is an advantage of sorts for 3UK, so you’d expect them to make the most of it.

“In terms of down link speeds, the real-world customer experience will depend on how much spectrum the operator can aggregate across LTE and 5G. Looked at this way, where they have 5G coverage, all four UK operators offer speeds way beyond what any smartphone apps require.

“The UK is one of only two markets with four commercially live 5G networks – the other is the US, which is about to consolidate to three, plus a new entrant. You’d expect to see the competitive spirit at play as operators do all they can to stake a claim in 5G.”

The campaign is focused on the spectrum allocation which Three has built over the last few years, but also gained thanks to the £250 million UK Broadband acquisition in 2017. In fairness, it does have the largest spectrum haul and is the only telco with 100 MHz of contiguous, ‘touching’ or uninterrupted, spectrum in currently usable 5G airwaves.

Spectrum frequency

Licence owner

3.41-3.46 GHz


3.46-3.5 GHz

Three/UK Broadband

3.5-3.54 GHz


3.54-3.58 GHz


3.58-4.009 GHz

Three/UK Broadband

And while some rivals of Three might downplay the advantage contiguous spectrum offers Three, Omdia’s lead 5G analyst, Dario Talmesio points out they were the first to complain about it.

In late 2018, Ofcom approved a request by Three to make alterations to its 3.6 GHz spectrum to create a 100 MHz contiguous block of 5G applicable spectrum. As Talmesio said, the three rivals complained to Ofcom this concession would offer Three an ‘unfair advantage’ in the 5G stakes, therefore there must be some validity to the claim contiguous spectrum offers a performance uplift.

The ITU, International Telecommunication Union, is in support of these claims also, suggesting contiguous spectrum would lead to the delivery of more efficient commercial 5G services.

Irrelevant as to whether there is justification to the concept that contiguous spectrum offers better 5G, the complaints are directed towards whether rivals 5G connectivity is a genuine upgrade or not.

“Overall, I can’t disagree with the decision,” said Talmesio. “If the contentious point is the reality or not of 5G, Three’s 5G might or might not be better, but 5G by Vodafone, EE, and O2 is as real as theirs.

“Ultimately customers will be judging them by the quality of what they experience on a daily basis.”

In response to the complaints, Three suggested there was adequate information on the website, even if it didn’t fully explain the statements in the ads. As Three has 100 MHz of immediately usable 5G spectrum in one contiguous block, a position rivals would not be able to match until the next spectrum auction, as well a network which features a cloud core and 20 data centres across the UK, the performance in terms of speed and latency exceeds that of rivals.

However, the ASA has said that this is misleading. The performance is unlikely to be ‘so significantly better’ therefore it would not render them substandard or not real 5G. Ultimately, the ASA does not believe this is a fair representation of the services being offered across the competitive landscape, and Three is not being responsible with its communications.

Once again, a member of the telco fraternity is being called out for misleading the consumer. It does seem to happen more frequently in this industry than others, perhaps owing to the technical nature; the general public is under-informed due to the speed of development and the complexity of the technology, therefore there is an opportunity to spew out half-truths or opaque statements which are taken as truthful.

The telco industry does not seem to want to change its ways with misleading statements unless regulation is brought in. Three has been caught out being irresponsible and misleading here, though none of the telcos are being fair to their customers.

Perhaps this is the time where the ASA should be given more power to punish. Three cannot use these adverts anymore, though it is likely to be mission accomplished now. The seed of doubt concerning rivals’ networks has already been planted in the minds of the general public. It might not grow into anything, but as there is no financial penalty for the misleading claims, this is a no-loss gamble for Three.

If there was a financial penalty for these statements, the telcos might be forced into being honest with their customers, but as it stands, the ASA has been defanged by bureaucracy.

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