What is an MVNO? – Mobile Virtual Network Operators Explained

Mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs) are wireless carriers that do not operate their own network hardware. Rather than operate a network, MVNOs generally pay wholesale rates to operate over another company’s network. In the U.S., MVNOs tend to use at least one of the “Big Four” networks: Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint. The network used by an MVNO is sometimes referred to as the MVNO’s “host operator.” A list of U.S. MVNOs can be found here.

Host operators vs. MVNOs

  • MVNOs heavily target the prepaid, no-contract market.
  • MVNOs tend to offer lower monthly prices than their host operators.
  • MVNOs generally don’t have the same roaming arrangements that host operators have. Accordingly, MVNOs generally offer a smaller coverage area than host operators.
  • MVNO subscribers may be subject to performance limitations or restrictions that direct subscribers to host operators are not affected by.

MVNO prioritization

When networks are under heavy loads, network access for MVNO subscribers may be prioritized lower than direct subscribers’ access to the host operator. For example, at a crowded, outdoor festival, T-Mobile’s network might be under an unusual load. In this case, T-Mobile’s direct subscribers may have higher download speeds than those using T-Mobile-based MVNOs.

MVNO structures vary

MVNOs take a lot of different forms. Most MVNOs are independently-owned companies, but a handful are owned and/or run by a host operator (e.g., AT&T is behind Cricket Wireless, Sprint is behind Boost Mobile, Verizon is behind Visible, and T-Mobile is behind Metro). Carriers owned by larger networks are regularly called MVNOs, but one could argue that it would be more accurate to call these carriers flanker brands.

Some MVNOs have direct partnerships with network operators; others work through middle-man companies that handle some of the logistics involved in reselling access to a host operator’s network.[1] Some MVNOs will offer services from only one network (e.g., Boost Mobile[2]). Other MVNOs offer service from multiple networks, but consumers must choose just one network (e.g., Red Pocket Mobile allows customers to select a network from the Big Four network of their choosing[3]). It’s even possible to draw on multiple networks simultaneously. Google Fi regularly switches between T-Mobile, Sprint, and U.S. Cellular’s networks.[4]

Footnotes

  1. These middle-man companies are referred to as mobile virtual network enablers (MVNEs) or “mobile virtual network aggregators” (MVNA). These terms mean different things, but my understanding is that there is (a) substantial overlap with some companies acting as both an MVNA and an MVNE and (b) some nebulosity around definitions and distinguishing features of each type of company.
  2. Boost Mobile operates exclusively on Sprint’s network. For more details, see the Wikipedia page on Boost Mobile.
  3. See this archived page from Red Pocket Mobile’s website on 3/21/2019. The page presents customers with the option to select their choice of AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint, or Verizon’s network.
  4. This is only for Google Fi phones. Phones that aren’t designed to be specifically compatible with Google Fi are limited to only T-Mobile’s network. See this excerpt from the Google Fi FAQ page (accessed 3/21/2019, archived here):

    “Unlike other phone plans, Google Fi offers cellular coverage across three leading networks (T-Mobile, Sprint, and U.S. Cellular) and Wi-Fi hotspots, with a phone designed for Fi. Phones that are not designed for Fi but are still compatible with Fi have nationwide access to the T-Mobile network.”

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