Rival operator EE first issued a formal complaint to ASA back in 2019 after Three boasted, “If it’s not Three, it’s not real 5G”. More recently, Vodafone issued a complaint about Three’s TV ad claiming that it was creating Britain’s fastest mobile network and that consumers should “join the future on Three, it’s real 5G.”
In both cases, ASA sided with the complainants.
National advertising rules in the UK require claims of superiority over a competitor to be backed with clear evidence. Three has offered some theoretical explanation for its claims but no clear real-world evidence.
With 100MHz worth, Three has the most contiguous 5G spectrum holdings of any UK operator—compared to 40MHz and 50MHz worth respectively of its nearest competitors. Global 5G standards body the ITU states “true” 5G requires 100MHz of 5G spectrum so Three’s claim isn’t entirely unsubstantiated.
However, after consulting with the telecoms experts at Ofcom, the aforementioned industry regulator informed ASA that “while all other things being equal Three might be able to offer higher peak speeds than other operators, they would be achievable only in certain ideal conditions and would rarely be experienced by consumers everywhere in a mature 5G network.”
ASA has therefore ruled Three’s advertising as misleading. In its ruling, the watchdog wrote:
“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.”
ASA says that the ad must not run again in its current form and that future campaigns should not make claims of a superior service without clear evidence.
Unfortunately, ASA has no legal authority to enforce its ruling or issue fines. As an organisation founded by the advertising industry, the only thing it can do is ask that advertisers don’t carry adverts the organisation has ruled against.
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