When Is 5G Not 5G? When It's Not 100MHz, Says Three

An advertising fracas over what counts as 5G draws attention to the industry's shortcomings.

Iain Morris, International Editor

August 20, 2019

4 Min Read
When Is 5G Not 5G? When It's Not 100MHz, Says Three

To the average telco, the merest whiff of a new technology is like a hare to a half-starved greyhound. Before anyone knows it, the poor thing has been seized hold of and mauled beyond recognition. It's a depressing indictment of an industry devoid of original ideas about how to attract customers. In the absence of imagination, operators wait for their suppliers to release the next standard from the laboratory traps, and then rip the young animal to shreds.

The pattern started in the 3G era and it continues to this day. Back in the mists of time, T-Mobile US (or T-Mobile USA, as it was then) butchered 4G when it started advertising an advanced 3G service under a 4G label. Years later, and under different management, it ridiculed AT&T for pouncing on the 5G moniker to describe a pumped-up version of 4G.

The case involving UK mobile operators is more nuanced, however. In an advertising slogan popping up everywhere, Three UK, the smallest of the UK's four mobile network operators, has effectively accused its rivals of AT&T-like 5G abuse. "If it's not Three, it's not real 5G," that reads.

Figure 1:

It's a curious assertion by an operator whose smartphone customers still can't receive a 5G service (Three is currently using 5G to support only a broadband offer). Riled by Three's advertising, both BT and Vodafone launched their own 5G mobile services earlier this year. And while AT&T was derided across the industry for dressing a 4G service up as a 5G one, analysts have been scurrying around London to carry out 5G speed tests on those BT and Vodafone networks. No one has complained about faux 5G.

Ah, but that's because they missed the ITU small print, reckons Three. At one time, it seems, the increasingly irrelevant International Telecommunications Union said: "The requirement for bandwidth is at least 100MHz." A 5G service without 100MHz is no better than one without those New Radio specifications the 3GPP cooked up in 2017. And guess what? Three owns 100MHz of contiguous spectrum, as it is keen to point out in a graphic that turns up in most of its presentations. No other service provider has more than 50MHz, that same graphic shows.

Figure 2:

Three's adversaries have reportedly complained to the UK's Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) about its cheekiness. And one suspects the ASA won't feel quite as strongly as Three does about the 100MHz issue. Even if its London offices are filled with technology experts who enjoy poring over documentation about cellular standards, siding with Three would imply that every other 5G advert misleads.

Disputes of this nature are a sign of the industry's shortcomings. Genuinely innovative telcos would not be engaged in point scoring over the definition of a connectivity standard. Their advertising would not even mention 5G. Rightly or wrongly, that technology has been tarnished by association with Huawei, a Chinese vendor deemed a security threat by critics. And it has been devalued like any sequel that serves up more of the same. "What does 5G do?" asks the average consumer. "It's like 4G, but faster," comes back the expert's underwhelming response.

Want to know more about 5G? Check out our dedicated 5G content channel here on
Light Reading.

None of this is a great surprise, though. Telecom operators aren't the most imaginative bunch, history shows. In the UK, one dumped two well-known brands in favor of the lame Everything Everywhere several years ago. BT's new logo undoubtedly cost millions to produce but looks as if it were rustled up by primary school children at playtime.

Occasionally, there are flashes of brilliance, such as this zombie-themed "different takes guts" promotion by Telefónica-owned Giffgaff (be warned, the footage is very gruesome). Even the ASA joined in the humor, writing in a blog published in May that its plan when faced with similar adverts would be to "have a cup of tea and wait for the whole thing to blow over" (although Giffgaff's advert was banned). Usually, telecom advertising is the wrong kind of horror show.

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— Iain Morris, International Editor, Light Reading

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About the Author(s)

Iain Morris

International Editor, Light Reading

Iain Morris joined Light Reading as News Editor at the start of 2015 -- and we mean, right at the start. His friends and family were still singing Auld Lang Syne as Iain started sourcing New Year's Eve UK mobile network congestion statistics. Prior to boosting Light Reading's UK-based editorial team numbers (he is based in London, south of the river), Iain was a successful freelance writer and editor who had been covering the telecoms sector for the past 15 years. His work has appeared in publications including The Economist (classy!) and The Observer, besides a variety of trade and business journals. He was previously the lead telecoms analyst for the Economist Intelligence Unit, and before that worked as a features editor at Telecommunications magazine. Iain started out in telecoms as an editor at consulting and market-research company Analysys (now Analysys Mason).

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