EE grasses on Three UK for its 5G advertising

Three UK has run an ad campaign claiming its 5G network is the only ‘real’ one. Unsurprisingly other 5G providers are unhappy about this and at least one had complained.

The UK Advertising Standards Authority has been forced to take precious resource away from enforcing gender politics dogma to look into Three’s 5G ad campaign. The ASA confirmed to Telecoms.com that it has received six complaints about an ad by Three claiming to provide the only ‘real’ 5G, with one of them coming from BT.

We contacted EE, which provided the following statement: “Three’s claim to be the only real 5G network is entirely false, and deliberately aimed at misleading consumers. Our customers have been using real 5G since we launched the UK’s first 5G network, back in May.”

And, of course, we also spoke to Three UK, which gave us this statement: “Our advert is to inform consumers that we will offer the fastest 5G network, based on Three having three times as much 5G spectrum as any other operator. We are also the only operator to have 100 MHz of contiguous spectrum. ITU considers this the gold standard for 5G, enabling consumers to take full advantage of what 5G has to offer.”

It all seems to come down this 100 MHz contiguous block of spectrum and the value the ITU places on it in the context of 5G. Here’s a slide from a Nokia presentation titled Minimum Technical Performance Requirements for IMT-2020 radio interface(s) [i.e. 5G] that clearly state “The requirement for bandwidth is at least 100 MHz.” However it also states “The bandwidth may be supported by single or multiple RF carriers.”

Nokia IMT 2020 requirements slide

That caveat would appear to undermine Three’s claim that only its contiguous 100 MHz chunk meets the ITU’s minimum requirements. But when we put that to Three their spokesperson countered that, since carrier aggregation isn’t currently supported by 5G chipsets, that stipulation is irrelevant.

Three reckons this complaint is evidence that its competitors are worried about Three’s strong position in 5G spectrum, which is wonderfully ironic when you consider Three has spent a decade moaning about the opposite imbalance in 4G spectrum. Three is presumably OK with the situation now that things have apparently swung in its favour, so much so it was happy to provide us with a few slides.

The first offers a look at the current UK 5G spectrum situation, following the 3.4 GHz spectrum auction last year. Most of Three’s 5G spectrum is in the 3.6-3.8 GHz band, however, and we’re not sure what the ‘future’ bar signifies, but Three does seem to be at a distinct advantage. So much so that its competitors have apparent been moaning to Ofcom too, as quoted in the second Three slide. The last one represents the results of some Three testing, which is designed to show the unique download speed benefits of having 100 MHz of contiguous 5G spectrum.

Thee 5G slide 1

Thee 5G slide 2

Thee 5G slide 3

To be honest we find it hard enough to keep track of who has what spectrum, and why we should care, so we’re certainly not in a position to critique Three’s claims on a technical level. However they do seem to serve as a plausible defense of any claim it might make to have at least the potential to provide greater 5G download speeds than its competitors.

Where we still have some sympathy with the ASA complaint, however, is with the use of the term ‘real’. If Three had simply gone with ‘fastest’, as it did in the above statement, then EE probably wouldn’t have a leg to stand on. But by instead using the term ‘real’ Three seems to inferring rival 5G services are somehow illegitimate.

It will be down to the ASA to sift through the 5G standard, including the above ITU parameters, to determine whether or not only a 5G service that is able to call upon at least 100 MHz of contiguous qualifies. Since the ASA seems more concerned with thought policing these days we have to question whether it has retained the expertise needed to perform its supposedly core function.

UK steps up its consumer protection crusade

The UK government has announced it wants to give some regulators the power to fine companies unilaterally without involving the courts.

The main beneficiary of these proposed new powers will be the Competition & Markets Authority, which exists to regulate markets. The plan was unveiled by Business Secretary Greg Clark as outgoing Prime Minister Theresa May rushes through a bunch of commitments in an apparent bid to have something to show for her time in charge. Specifically this refers to claimed ‘loyalty penalties’ in which existing customers are given insufficient information about available deals.

A key part of this initiative seems to be to give the CMA the power to interpret and enforce the law itself, without needing to trouble the judiciary. Why the matter of a few punters paying a bit more for their utilities is a matter of sufficient gravity to suspend the rule of law is not made clear, but Clark seems to want the CMA and possibly other regulators to be able to fine companies whenever they feel like it.

The Government has already committed to legislate in order to give consumer enforcers the power to impose fines on companies for breaches of consumer law by applying to the courts,” wrote Clark in his letter to the CMA. “We will follow this through and also want to go further to ensure that enforcers have the powers they need to incentivise firms to comply with the law. This will include empowering the CMA to decide itself whether consumer protection law has been broken and then impose fines for wrongdoing directly.”

“I strongly believe that consumer loyalty should not be exploited and nor should consumers have to work so hard to get a fair deal,” said Clark in the press release of the announcement. “We have already shown our willingness to take action through our energy price cap, which means every household is protected from unjustified price rises.”

The system as it stands not only lets consumers down but it also lets down the vast majority of businesses who play by the rules,” said May. “It is high time this came to an end and today we are confirming our intention to give much stronger powers to the CMA, to strengthen the sanctions available and to give customers the protection they deserve against firms who want to rip them off.”

All this agonising over the plight of hapless UK consumers isn’t limited to the government. The Advertising Standards Authority thinks UK companies shouldn’t be allowed to portray claimed ‘gender stereotypes’ in their ads because they might cause some unspecified harm. Even the prospect of harm is now sufficient justification for state censorship, it seems.

“Our evidence shows how harmful gender stereotypes in ads can contribute to inequality in society, with costs for all of us,” said ASA boss Guy Parker. “Put simply, we found that some portrayals in ads can, over time, play a part in limiting people’s potential.  It’s in the interests of women and men, our economy and society that advertisers steer clear of these outdated portrayals, and we’re pleased with how the industry has already begun to respond”.

So we’re not even talking about harm here, just ‘playing a part in limiting people’s potential’. Parker is so concerned about this blight on UK society that he has sat on his claimed evidence for two years before acting. Here are the ‘outdated portrayals’ advertisers are no longer allowed to depict.

  • An ad that depicts a man with his feet up and family members creating mess around a home while a woman is solely responsible for cleaning up the mess.
  • An ad that depicts a man or a woman failing to achieve a task specifically because of their gender e.g. a man’s inability to change nappies; a woman’s inability to park a car.
  • Where an ad features a person with a physique that does not match an ideal stereotypically associated with their gender, the ad should not imply that their physique is a significant reason for them not being successful, for example in their romantic or social lives.
  • An ad that seeks to emphasise the contrast between a boy’s stereotypical personality (e.g. daring) with a girl’s stereotypical personality (e.g. caring) needs to be handled with care.
  • An ad aimed at new mums which suggests that looking attractive or keeping a home pristine is a priority over other factors such as their emotional wellbeing.
  • An ad that belittles a man for carrying out stereotypically ‘female’ roles or tasks.

That’s all nice and clear isn’t it? Presumably it’s OK to have a bloke doing the washing up in an ad, or a woman chopping down a tree, so long as it’s not also considered to be taking the piss. It looks like ads now have to feature unattractive people being fancied by everyone, but it’s unclear whether beautiful people are allowed to be fancied too. Lastly the ASA advises that banned gender stereotypes are allowed as a means to challenge their negative effects, so the Gillette ad below is presumably OK.

At this rate it’s possible to imagine a time when no UK consumers will ever come to any harm whatsoever and everyone will be free to explore their full potential, unencumbered by dispiriting imagery. Anyone who has a problem with UK agencies unilaterally fining and censoring companies in the name of the public good clearly doesn’t understand the danger we’re in.

 

UK advertising watchdog ties itself in knots over broadband marketing

The UK Advertising Standards Authority has ruled that Vodafone’s ‘Gigafast’ service was misleading because some people might reckon that means 1 Gbps.

In reality the brand referred to a range of broadband packages, the fastest of which could still only manage an average of 900 Mbps. Virgin Media thought this was a bit cheeky and so grassed Vodafone up to the ASA, which today upheld the complaint on the grounds that, while some people wouldn’t read much into it, some punters might reckon they would be getting at least 1 Gbps when they weren’t.

“The ASA considered that many consumers would likely understand the prefix ‘Giga’ to be a hyperbolic description of speed, and would therefore generally understand ‘Gigafast’ internet was very fast broadband,” satated the ruling. “However, we considered that a significant proportion of consumers would have sufficient knowledge of broadband terminology to understand Gigafast Broadband as a reference to a service capable of providing speeds of 1 Gbps (1000 Mbps).”

Contrast this with the ASA’s previous ruling on the use of the term ‘fibre’ in broadband marketing. Its conclusion in that case was that hardly anyone would think fibre meant 100% fibre, so it’s fine to just chuck the term around even if loads of the connection was actually over copper. How come people understand giga to mean 1000 Mbps but don’t think fibre means fibre?

To be fair to the ASA there was an additional complicating factor in this case, which is that Vodafone apparently kept banging on about the £23 price point in its Gigafast marketing, when that price only gets you an average speed of 100 Mbps, with the 900 Mbps one costing £48 per month. That seems to be the thing that the ASA most objected to, implying it’s fine with a 900 Mbps average service being called gigafast despite having previously ruled that ‘up to’ claims weren’t allowed.

“Although we considered that the website made clear that Vodafone Gigafast referred to a range of packages which were not all capable of providing 1Gbps, because it implied that consumers could get a service that offered speeds of 1Gbps for £23 per month, when that was not the case, we concluded that it was likely to mislead,” concluded the ruling.

The ASA seems to be increasingly confused about broadband marketing. It seems fine with labelling a package of services, the fastest of which only averages 900 Mbps, as Gigafast and with calling a partly copper connection fibre. At the same time it objects to the use of ‘up to’ in describing broadband speeds and is touchy about ambiguous pricing claims. It needs to either be laissez faire or authoritarian, but right now it seems to jump between those positions on a case by case basis.

What is it with telcos and the ‘creative’ approach to advertising honesty?

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has once again had to step in to put a stop to telco advertising, this time Three’s efforts, posing a pretty simple question; why do the telcos find it so easy to put misleading adverts into the world?

The latest ruling was surrounding Three’s ‘Go Roam’ claim, which states users are able to ‘Feel at Home’ by using their full data allowance without any extra costs in 71 countries. An investigation from the ASA found postpaid users were limited to 13GB and postpaid to 12GB, before costs were applied. There is text hidden away somewhere on the Three website pointing towards a fair use clause, though the ASA does not believe this is sufficient and Three has been misleading customers.

Three’s response to the claims was relatively simple. Firstly, most of it customers only use 0.75GB per month in a ‘Go Roam’ destination, therefore 12GB was excessive. Secondly, that the claim had been used since 2014 and was strongly associated with their brand, which supposedly makes it alright. It does appear some customers were using it for business purposes, making several trips abroad per month, while the offer had originally been intended for holidays.

This is a perfectly respectable defence from Three, but without informing the customer of these conditions, it doesn’t have a leg to stand on. Unfortunately this is becoming a common trend. Service providers seem to think they can do what they like before pointing to some obscure reference on websites, incredibly small print or a statement made to an irrelevant number of people at a niche event. While Three might have been caught out in this instance, it is not alone.

BT had a complaint upheld regarding its claims on wifi speeds in April. Sky was caught misleading customers in March regarding a price promotion. Vodafone was caught out earlier this month and in September for misleading claims in adverts featuring Martin Freeman. There are other examples, plus the pending investigations with the ASA and also dozens of examples over the last few months of ‘informally resolved’ incidents. Vodafone has ‘informally resolved’ 12 of these complaints so far in 2018, TalkTalk seven and O2 five. Some of these will be down to honest mistakes, but the complaints seem to becoming more common.

Of course the other factor which needs to be taken into account is the ‘up to’ metric which plagued telcos advertisements for years, misleading customers over speeds which can be achieved. Any normal person would have told any of the telco’s marketing team this is not a fair or honest way to communicate with the consumer, but it become commonplace. It seems the telcos are harbouring different standards when it comes to honesty than the rest of us.

UK broadband subscribers typically get half of the advertised speed – Which

Consumer advocacy group Which mined data from its broadband speed checker app to compare what is advertised with what people actually get.

The overall finding was that, on average, the 235,000 users of the app pay for broadband services that claim to offer speeds ‘up to’ 38 Mbps, but only get 19 Mbps. Which seems to have timed the announcement to coincide with new advertising standards that will come into effect next week, apparently prohibiting the use of the slipper phrase ‘up to’ when plugging broadband services in the UK.

“This change in the rules is good news for customers who have been continuously been let down by unrealistic adverts and broadband speeds that won’t ever live up to expectations,” said Alex Neill of Which. “We know that speed and reliability of service really matter to customers and we will be keeping a close eye on providers to make sure they follow these new rules and finally deliver the service that people pay for.”

Not everyone is convinced by these findings, however. “Looking at Which’s results here I have to say I find them rather odd,” said Dan Howdle of broadband advice site Cable.co.uk. “Ofcom’s most recent testing shows, for example, that a 200Mbps connection (offered exclusively by Virgin Media in the UK) averaged 92% of the advertised speed at peak times.

“With such a large disparity between Ofcom’s results and those of Which I believe something could be amiss. One possible explanation might be if measurements were to be taken over wifi (rather than over a LAN cable) – this would have the potential to show the much slower averages measured by Which.

“Wifi, while capable of these speeds on paper, tends to be slowed down considerably (compared to a LAN cable) in your typical urban environment thanks to signal interference and architectural considerations. Whatever the cause, Which’s results are at odds with those of the regulator, as well as a multitude of other sources.”

Oh dear Which. There’s always the danger of confirmation bias when research is conducted by organisations with a commercial agenda. Which wants to sell subscriptions, switching services (of which Cable.co.uk seems to be one) want people to shop around through them. It does seem likely, however, that ‘up to’ marketing is misleading and hopefully its prohibition will empower consumers by itself.

Here’s Which’s table, followed by the Ofcom data referred to by Howdle.

Which bb speed table

Ofcom BB speed table

ASA tells Three to be more accurate when whining

The UK’s Advertising Standards Authority has ruled Three’s campaign for a spectrum cap on mobile operators as misleading, primarily because it implied it was an independently run mission.

After pleading with Ofcom to impose a cap on the amount of spectrum any one telco could hold, Three threw a temper tantrum. Ofcom agreed a cap was necessary, but Three deemed it was not stringent enough. Instead of using the billions of profits its parent company has hidden away in Hong Kong to compete in the open market, Three used creative advertising campaigns to bend the opinion of the general public.

After a consultation, and a complaint by BT, the ASA has ruled the Three campaign was misleading the consumer and cannot run again in its present form. This is of course not a bad on Three’s freedom of speech rights to moan, but it must whinge in a more accurate manner from now on.

“We told Make The Air Fair to ensure its ads did not imply that it was an independent body campaigning on behalf of consumers,” the ASA said in its ruling.

“We also told them not to make claims which stated or implied that BT/EE ‘dominated’ the mobile market, that it could ‘ruin’ the UK’s mobile internet, or that if BT/EE bought more spectrum in the auction it would result in higher mobile prices, slower speeds and worse coverage for UK consumers, unless they held adequate substantiation.”

The campaign itself was a bit of an odd one for the telco space, mainly because it was creative and appealing to the consumer. Featuring a cartoon depiction of Ofcom CEO Sharon White as a superhero, the Make the Air Fair campaign demanded she take action to create a better mobile environment for the consumer.

It claimed that BT/EE ‘dominated’ the UK mobile market, it would ruin the mobile landscape in the future, if BT/EE was allowed more spectrum assets prices would rise, as well as decreased speeds, coverage and performance. The implication from the campaign, which featured across paid-for Facebook post, regional press ad, poster and internet display ads, was that this was an independent campaign group.

Being funded by Three, TalkTalk, CityFibre, Gamma and Relish, this was clearly not an independent campaign and the ASA found no evidence to substantiate the claims. In short, Three and its cronies were spinning assumptions presented as facts; very dodgy grounds. Such campaigns do very little to change the perception that telcos are liars, especially following the ‘up to’ farce.

While it is our job to remain impartial, Three makes it quite difficult at times. This campaign seems to be just another way in which the telco, which is owned by a Hong Kong based profit machine, is trying to avoid competing on a level playing field. The team constantly seem to be looking for a helping hand from regulators or politicians, playing the David vs. Goliath card. Perhaps this is an instance which will force the miserly Three to put its hand in its golden-lined pocket.

UK ISPs told to stop using ‘up to’ broadband speed claims

The Advertising Standards Agency has placed a slither of logic into broadband advertising rules, partly tackling the issue of misleading representations with the use of ‘up to’ in adverts.

As of 23 May 2018, UK ISPs are guided (note) not to describe download speeds using the phrase ‘up to’, but instead describe ‘average’ speeds, only quoting numbers which can be achieved by 50% of customers during peak hours. The hope is customers will have a more accurate representation of the actual services they will be purchasing from ISPs, though we imagine it won’t be long until the slippery marketers at the ISPs think of another way to screw the customer.

“There are a lot of factors that affect the broadband speed a customer is going to get in their own home – from technology to geography, to how a household uses broadband,” said Shahriar Coupal, Director of the Committees of Advertising Practice.

“While we know these factors mean some people will get significantly slower speeds than others, when it comes to broadband ads, our new standards will give consumers a better understanding of the broadband speeds offered by different providers when deciding to switch providers.”

Right now, ISPs can claim customers will experience ‘up to’ speeds, should it be able to demonstrate 10% of customers actually can. Many have criticised the practise as misleading, as 10% is not an accurate representation of an ISPs performance. And those people complaining should feel completely justified.

While this is a positive move from the ASA, you have to question why the advertisers need a six month window to get used to the rules. If the government changed the speed limit on the motorway tomorrow, we would still have to abide by the rules from tomorrow.

Alongside the rule change, the ASA has also released some research into how the term ‘fibre’ can be used in advertising. There aren’t any rulings to report just yet, but the ASA has some interesting snippets to report from the initial research.

  • The consumer thinks fibre is a generic buzzword to describe speeds within advertising
  • Fibre is not considered to be a differentiating factor when making a buying decision
  • Even after educating the consumer on what fibre actually is, they probably still won’t care

The purpose of the research was to identify whether those slippery marketers were being dodgy once again. It has been noticed that fibre is a term used in advertising to describe both full-fibre and part-fibre connections. Little has been done to distinguish between the two, or even let the consumer know what the difference is, but they don’t seem to care anyway.

This should not be viewed as a green-light for ISPs to continue the trend of misleading truths however. ISPs generally do not need any encouragement to exaggerate, and we wonder whether it is sensible for the ASA to essentially say it is not bothered.

As it stands, ISPs can only say it is a fibre service if there is fibre in the service. This should be obvious, but better state it just in case there are some ‘creative’ marketers out there getting some funny ideas. Advertising speeds should be relative to the technology on offer. Finally, ISPs are not allowed to say services are the most technologically advanced on the market if it is only part-fibre.

This is certainly a positive step forward for the consumer, but there is still work to be done. We appreciate performance will vary for customers, therefore there is a need for a broad brush in TV advertising, but considering the targeted nature of online advertising, we would like to see much more accurate and regionalised statistics.

The ISPs still have six months to rinse the ‘up to’ phrase, and then we’ll see what other nuances the slippery marketers can come up with to mislead the consumer. It should be noted, however, that this is merely guidance and there don’t seem to be any explicit sanctions in place should ISPs ignore the recommendations.