Definition of MNO: What is an MNO Cell Phone Carrier?

People testing an iPhone 6S in Gold.


The acronym MNO stands for mobile network operator. An MNO is a larger cell phone carrier that often owns its equipment and offers mobile phone service.

In the United States, the major MNOs are AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless. While an MNO often owns its network infrastructure and licensed radio spectrum, a mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) usually does not.

A smaller MVNO typically has a business relationship with a larger MNO. An MVNO pays wholesale fees for minutes and then sells the minutes at retail prices under its own brand. See here for a list of which networks are used by many of the prepaid wireless carriers.

MVNOs often come in the form of prepaid wireless carriers (such as Boost Mobile, Virgin Mobile, Straight Talk and PlatinumTel).

An MNO can also be called a wireless service provider, cell phone company, carrier service provider (CSP), mobile phone operator, wireless carrier, mobile phone operator or a mobo.

To become an MNO in the U.S., a company typically starts by licensing radio spectrum from the government.

The acquisition of spectrum by a company usually occurs by auction.

The spectrum acquired needs to be compatible with the carrier’s intended network technology (i.e. GSM or CDMA).


Sprint is an MNO.