What is an MVNO Cell Phone Carrier?

To MVNO or Not?

The acronym MVNO stands for mobile virtual network operator. An MVNO is a cell phone carrier (such as a prepaid wireless carrier) that typically does not have its own network infrastructure and licensed radio spectrum. Instead, an MVNO has a business relationship with a mobile network operator (MNO). An MVNO pays wholesale fees for minutes and then sells the minutes at retail prices under its own brand.

The "virtual" in MVNO means that it operates "virtually" on another carrier's "actual" network.

There are four primary MNOs in the United States, sometimes called the "Big Four":  AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon and Sprint.

Some well-known MVNOs include Boost MobileVirgin MobileStraight Talk, and Consumer Cellular.

What Does an MVNO Mean to You?

Because an MVNO is an MNO reseller, you might think that an MVNO's fees would be higher. Not so. Usually, MVNO fees offer cheaper plans than do the Big Four — sometimes substantially less expensive. 

Further, MVNOs are typically a prepaid service, so they require no contracts. But MVNOs are not for everyone. Here are the pros and cons from a consumer's point of view:

Pros:

  • Price:
     MVNOs provide some extremely inexpensive options. For example, consumers who want cell phones only for emergencies can find plans (albeit with limited phone, text or data) for as little as $10 or $15 per month. These types of plans also tend to be based on inexpensive and less feature-rich devices.
  • No Contract:
     Forget the two-year contracts and the high fees in the event that you switch carriers before your contract is up. MVNO plans are month-to-month. 
  • Range of Plans:
     Just like with the Big Four, most MVNOs offer a range of plans and some offer unlimited data, as well. Don't think that because these are resellers, that they are somehow offering a lower level of features. 
  • BYO: Most MVNOs support "Bring Your Own", i.e. they support a wide range of phones of various operating systems, and you can often bring an existing phone to their network. This means you don't have to purchase a specific phone, nor do you have to sign on to a payment plan. This does depend, however, on the type of network an MVNO is operating on and whether your phone is unlocked (i.e. not tied to a particular carrier). Note that all carriers are required to unlock their devices once a contract is complete, so all you have to do is ask.

    For example, if you have a GSM phone, it will work on T-Mobile and AT&T networks and any MVNO carriers that use those networks. Alternatively, CDMA phones work on Sprint and Verizon and related MVNO carriers. Some phones can work on both networks.

    The take home point is that you understand what kind of phone you have and make sure it will work on the network you are considering. It's recommended that you contact the MVNO before switching, to ensure that your phone will work. Be ready with your phone's IMEI number (its unique code, usually in the phone's settings or stamped onto the back of the phone), since this will help determine whether your phone is compatible with the network.

    Cons:

    • Fewer Features:
      Some MVNOs offer fewer features than their affiliated MNO. This could include lack of support for nationwide roaming, tethering (i.e. using your phone as a hot-spot to provide internet connectivity to another device), or whether unused data rolls over from month to month. For example, Virgin Mobile does not offer the nationwide roaming coverage that its MNO Sprint does.
    • Throttled data:
      Several MVNOs "throttle" data speeds once users have reached a certain amount. For example, Cricket (operating on AT&T's network) throttles back data speeds even on its "unlimited" plan once customers have used a certain amount of data.

      Before switching to an MVNO, be sure to talk to its customer service and be clear on all the fine print regarding any throttling or limitations on features.

      Why MVNOs are Good for the Cellular Industry

      A traditional MNO owns its network infrastructure and therefore pays to maintain and expand it — an expensive cost of doing business. For an MNO, it can make sense to incorporate a reseller partner such as an MVNO, since that can help them expand their market reach to bring in new customers. For example, if an MNO has some excess network capacity, then it can recoup some of the infrastructure costs by leasing it out, rather than letting it remain idle.

      In some cases, in fact, a Big Four network actually owns an MVNO outright. This is true with Cricket Wireless, for instance, which is wholly owned by AT&T.

      From the MVNO's point of view, an MVNO startup can quickly earn a profit, since it has no infrastructure costs and can operate in the black with far fewer customers than an MNO.

      List of MVNOs and Their Affiliated MNOs

      No comprehensive, updated list of MVNOs is possible because new MVNOs are arriving on the marketplace all the time. Here is a list, however, of some of the more popular and prominent MVNOs.

      MVNO CarrierMNO Network
      Airvoice WirelessAT&T
      Boost Mobile

      Sprint

      Consumer CellularAT&T, T-Mobile
      Cricket WirelessAT&T
      MetroPCST-Mobile
      Net10 WirelessAT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon
      Project Fi (Google)Sprint, T-Mobile
      Republic WirelessSprint, T-Mobile
      StraightTalk Wireless (Tracfone)AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon
      Virgin Mobile USA Sprint