What is an MVNO? Carriers That Use AT&T, T-Mobile & Verizon Towers

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The term “MVNO” stands for “Mobile Virtual Network Operator.” An MVNO is any wireless provider that does not own the wireless infrastructure and network equipment that it operates on.

Imagine walking into a store to buy a product, but upon closer inspection, you discover that it’s made by another popular brand and simply rebranded for sale. This is somewhat similar to how MVNOs operate. They might not own the infrastructure or the “factory” that produces the service, but they package, brand, and sell the service under their own banner.

What’s An MNO And How Do They Work With MVNOs?

So who does own and maintain the nationwide network infrastructure, and “factory” that actually produces the service?

Well, that’s the job of a “Mobile Network Operator“, or “MNO” for short.

An example of an MNO carrier is Verizon Wireless. Verizon Wireless has built out its own 5G nationwide network using its own wireless spectrum and network equipment that includes antennas and signal transmitters.

An MVNO buys network access from an MNO, and resells service under their own brand name with their own plan structures. This ability to resell under different branding and service packages gives rise to a variety of options for consumers, often at competitive prices.

One example of an MVNO is US Mobile. US Mobile does not own any wireless spectrum or network equipment. But it does use the network owned and operated by Verizon to provide coverage to its customers.

Some MVNOs, including US Mobile, offer wireless service using several MNO carrier networks. Not only does US Mobile use Verizon Wireless for coverage, they also use T-Mobile.

Another example of an MVNO using multiple MNO carrier networks for coverage is Red Pocket Mobile. Red Pocket Mobile provides coverage to its customers by using the AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon networks.

AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon are currently the only MNO carriers that offer the ability for others to use their networks to power their MVNOs. However, if DISH succeeds in becoming a viable 4th MNO carrier, they too can be expected to offer the ability for businesses to run MVNOs through their network.

Do MVNOs Always Buy Their Service Through An MNO Carrier?

We just went over the gist of what an MVNO is and how they work. They buy airtime from an MNO carrier to resell, usually to consumers but sometimes to businesses. However, not every MVNO actually buys airtime directly from a carrier. Some MVNOs actually use an intermediary to do that for them. The intermediaries are known as Mobile Virtual Network Aggregators (MVNAs) and Mobile Virtual Network Enablers (MVNEs).

Jon Horovitz, over at BestMVNO.com, explained in his article How To Start Your Own MVNO, the nuts and bolts of MVNAs and MVNEs. MVNEs in essence can provide “MVNO in a box solutions” to MVNOs offering them billing, administration, support and wireless plans to sell. MVNAs don’t necessarily provide “MVNO in a box solutions,” but they do buy access to MNO networks on behalf of their MVNO partners.

Of course, the bottom line is that MVNOs don’t have their own wireless network and infrastructures. Instead, they buy access to an MNO carrier network and their infrastructure either directly through the MNO carrier itself or through help of an MVNA or MVNE.

Why Should You Put Your Wireless Service In The Hands Of An MVNO?

There are several reasons why you may want to obtain your wireless service through an MVNO. The biggest one may simply be price.

The starting prices for an MVNO phone plan are significantly cheaper than anything you’ll find through an MNO carrier. For instance, look at the phone plans from Good2Go Mobile. Their cheapest offering is unlimited talk, text, and data with 1GB of data at up to 5G data speeds for just $5/month. But to get that rate, you do have to prepay for one year of service in advance.

Another reason to consider MVNOs may be if you don’t have good credit or simply want to avoid credit checks. Most MVNOs do not require a credit check to get a phone plan. The same holds true though for MNO carrier prepaid brands like AT&T Prepaid, Cricket Wireless, and Metro by T-Mobile to name a few.

MVNOs can also offer you specialized services and plans that tackle niche markets. Tello Mobile offers custom build plans with international calling. MobileX uses artificial intelligence to learn your usage habits to build a plan that’s completely unique to you.

In general, the pros of subscribing to an MVNO include:

  • MVNOs can be very cheap. Especially for single line customers
  • They can provide plans for a wide range of budgets and needs
  • MVNOs can offer specialty services to cater to niche markets
  • They can offer plans not available from major carriers
  • They use the same networks as the major carriers

Are There Drawbacks To Using An MVNO?

Yes. MVNOs aren’t the best option for everyone. The biggest downsides to an MVNO include:

  • Most don’t have stores to walk into for support
  • Customer support can be limited in available hours and ways to contact
  • Many do not sell phones or only offer a limited selection
  • MVNO customers are typically deprioritized* below customers that are signed up directly with an MNO carrier
  • Multi-line discounts are often unavailable or not as deeply discounted compared a major carrier
  • Longevity – newly launched MVNOs don’t always last long. And sometimes successful ones get bought out

*Deprioritized means that when a major carrier’s network becomes congested with a lot of traffic, MVNO customers may notice their data speeds slowing down, sometimes dramatically. This is to give priority access with faster speeds to higher paying customers that subscribe directly to select plans from AT&T, T-Mobile or Verizon.

Many wireless subscribers claim that Verizon has the worst data prioritization policies. When the network is congested and the prioritization policy hits hard, you may not be able to use any data at all. This can happen with any network though but seems more likely to happen with Verizon based service. To get around this, some subscribers have two phone plans on the same phone by either using two physical sim cards, two eSIMs or a combination of the two. They may have a cheap phone plan to use if their main line runs out of data, doesn’t have coverage or their main line is being used in an area where the network is congested. If you really need a high priority data connection, you can always check out this list of plans with priority data.

byu/MisterCleverFox from discussion

MVNOs: What Are The Best Options?

There is no single best option available for everybody. Go back to the list of pros and cons above and take a second look at two of the major pros: “1) they can provide plans for a wide range of budgets and needs, and 2) MVNOs can offer specialty services to cater to niche markets.”

So which one is best for you will depend on your specific needs and if you need something that falls under a niche market or not. They aren’t right for everybody. If you have several lines and need a truly unlimited data plan and are in a heavily congested area, a phone plan from a major wireless carrier may be better for you.

Now that you have a better understanding of what an MVNO is, you can check out this pros and cons list of carriers and MVNOs to search for one that fit may fit your needs. You can also compare MNO carrier and MVNO plans by filtering them with this phone plan finder.

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