Mobile Carriers in the U.S.

Learn the difference between mobile carriers and MVNOs

cell tower at dusk in sunset

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A mobile carrier is a wireless service provider that supplies cellular connectivity services to mobile phone and tablet subscribers. The cellular company you pay for your cell phone usage is either a mobile carrier or a mobile virtual network operator (MVNO). The United States has only a few licensed mobile carriers, but many MVNOs.

U.S. Mobile Carriers

Mobile carriers are large entities that must acquire a radio spectrum license from the U.S. government to operate in any region of the country. They own and operate extensive infrastructure in the regions where they offer service. The names of these telecommunication giants are familiar. The four largest mobile carriers in the U.S. as of late 2018 are:

  • Verizon Wireless
  • T-Mobile
  • AT&T Mobility
  • Sprint, which as of October 2018 was awaiting federal approval of a merger with T-Mobile

Owners of mobile phones use a cellular provider to support the calling, texting, and data capabilities on their smartphones and other mobile devices. All major carriers support 3G and 4G calling, data plans, and a choice of several service plans.

If you don't see your mobile carrier on this short list, you probably use one of the many mobile virtual network operators, some of which are subsidiaries or partners with one of the licensed cellular providers. Some MVNOs partner with more than one of the major carriers to provide service.

Mobile Virtual Network Operators

U.S. 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 the base station, spectrum, or infrastructure needed to transmit. Instead, they lease from a licensed operator in their area. They tend to operate regionally rather than nationwide and are smaller companies than the cellular companies from which they rent their radio spectrum. Some MVNOs are alternative brands of large mobile carriers such as:

  • Cricket Wireless (AT&T)
  • Metro by T-Mobile (T-Mobile)
  • Spectrum Mobile (Verizon)
  • Virgin Mobile (Sprint Corporation)

Other examples of MVNOs include:

  • Affinity Cellular
  • Armed Forces Wireless
  • Boost Mobile
  • Consumer Cellular
  • EasyGO Wireless
  • NetZero
  • Page Plus Cellular
  • Straight Talk
  • Ting
  • Total Wireless
  • TracFone Wireless
  • U.S. Cellular

MVNOs often target small regions or niche segments of the population. Typically, MVNOs offer inexpensive monthly plans with no contracts and prepaid plans. They may not offer the same quality service or data speed as the mobile carrier they lease spectrum from, or they may be throttled at a specified usage point. You can port your existing number to an MVNO 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. Therefore, MVNOs may have lower data speeds.

Typically MVNOs offer lower pricing and more diverse plans than the large carriers. Some MVNOs also provide attractive international calling options. They may be the only options available in rural areas of the country.

Despite the downside of lower speed or possible throttling, MVNOs provide bargain service. They typically price out at half the cost of the large mobile providers.