Mobile Carriers in the U.S.

Learn the Difference Between Mobile Carriers and MVNOs

cell tower at dusk
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A mobile carrier is a service provider that supplies connectivity services to mobile phone and tablet subscribers. The cellular company you pay for your cellphone usage is either a mobile carrier or a mobile virtual network operator. There are only a few licensed mobile carriers in the U.S. and many MVNOs.

U.S. Mobile Carriers

Mobile carriers must acquire a radio spectrum license from the government to operate in any region of the country. The mobile carriers in the U.S. are:

  • Sprint
  • Verizon Wireless
  • AT&T
  • T-Mobile
  • U.S. Cellular

Owners of mobile phones use a cellular carrier to support the calling, texting and data capabilities of their smartphones.

Mobile Virtual Network Operators

Mobile carriers are permitted to sell access to their radio spectrum to other companies that operate as mobile virtual network operators. MVNOs do not own a base station, spectrum, or infrastructure needed to transmit. Instead, they lease from a licensed operator in their area. A few MVNOs are alternative brands of large mobile carriers such as:

  • MetroPCS (owned by T-Mobile)
  • Cricket Wireless (owned by AT&T)
  • Virgin Mobile (owned by Sprint)

Examples of other MVNOs include:

  • TracFone Wireless
  • Total Wireless
  • Straight Talk
  • Page Plus Cellular
  • NetZero
  • Armed Forces Wireless
  • Affinity Cellular
  • Ting

MVNOs often target small regions or niche segments of the population. Typically, MVNOs offer inexpensive monthly plans with no contracts. They offer the same quality service as the mobile carrier they lease spectrum from. You can port your existing number as long as you stay in the same area and bring your own phone with some limitations. GSM and CDMA phones don't work on the same networks, but an unlocked phone has no such restrictions.

Because MVNOs have low overhead costs, they usually spend aggressively on marketing to attract individuals to their service. In some cases, their customers receive lower priority than the customers of the bigger networks they lease bandwidth from. MNVOs may have lower data speeds, for example.