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MVNO 101: What They Are, How They Work & Who They‘re For

In the past, if you wanted cellular service in the U.S., you had to sign up with one of the major mobile network operators (MNOs) like Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile or Sprint. But over the past decade, a new breed of wireless providers called MVNOs (mobile virtual network operators) have emerged to challenge the dominance of the "Big 4."

MVNOs have exploded in popularity, particularly among younger and more budget-conscious consumers. According to a report by Strategy Analytics, the number of MVNO subscribers in the U.S. has grown from just 7 million in 2014 to over 30 million in 2019, and is projected to reach 50 million by 2024.

So what exactly are MVNOs, and how do they differ from traditional mobile carriers? In this comprehensive guide, we‘ll break down everything you need to know about MVNOs, including:

  • What MVNOs are and how they work
  • The history and explosive growth of the MVNO market
  • The different types of MVNO business models
  • The pros and cons of using an MVNO compared to a major carrier
  • A look at some of the most popular MVNO providers and plans
  • Key factors to consider when choosing an MVNO
  • Who MVNOs are best for based on usage and needs

Whether you‘re a tech enthusiast or just looking to save money on your cell phone bill, read on for an expert deep dive into the world of MVNOs.

What is an MVNO?

An MVNO, or mobile virtual network operator, is a wireless communications services provider that does not own the wireless network infrastructure over which it provides services to its customers. Instead, MVNOs enter into agreements with one or more traditional MNOs to obtain bulk access to network services at wholesale rates, then set their own retail prices and sell services under their own brand.

The term "virtual" refers to the fact that MVNOs do not actually operate a physical mobile network themselves, but rather piggyback on existing networks owned by the major carriers. By leasing network access rather than building out their own infrastructure, MVNOs are able to drastically reduce their overhead costs and offer service plans at much cheaper rates than MNOs.

The first modern MVNO was Virgin Mobile UK, which launched in 1999 through a partnership with T-Mobile UK (then known as One2One). Virgin‘s success proved the viability of the MVNO model and inspired dozens of similar launches across Europe in the early 2000s. The U.S. MVNO market developed a bit slower, with most early players focusing on prepaid plans and often struggling to gain traction. But that started to change in the 2010s with the launch of high-profile brands like Google Fi and cable companies like Comcast‘s Xfinity Mobile.

Fast forward to today and the U.S. MVNO space is booming. According to data from Statista, there are now over 100 active MVNO brands operating in the country. While the Big 4 carriers still dominate the overall market with a combined 98% market share, MVNOs are steadily chipping away at their subscriber bases, especially among more tech-savvy and price-sensitive segments.

MVNO Subscriber Growth in the U.S.
Year
2014
2019
2024 (Projected)

Source: Strategy Analytics

How Do MVNOs Work?

At a high level, the MVNO business model is based on buying network capacity from MNOs at wholesale prices and reselling it to consumers at a discount. But there are a few different variations of this model that MVNOs can adopt depending on their strategy and capabilities:

  1. Branded resellers are the most basic type of MVNO. They simply purchase bulk access to an MNO‘s network and resell service under their own brand name, often targeting a specific market niche. The MNO handles all network operations, infrastructure, and customer support. Examples include Boost Mobile (Sprint network) and Cricket Wireless (AT&T).

  2. Light MVNOs handle their own sales, marketing, billing and customer service, while still relying on the host operator‘s network infrastructure. This gives them more control over things like pricing, device selection and the overall customer experience. A well-known example is Consumer Cellular, which uses both AT&T and T-Mobile‘s networks.

  3. Full MVNOs are involved in almost every aspect of the service except owning the radio access network (RAN) of cell towers. They have their own core network infrastructure to manage tasks like user authentication, routing voice calls/data, etc. The main benefit is maximum flexibility and control, but it requires significant investment. Google Fi, which dynamically switches between T-Mobile, Sprint and US Cellular networks, is one of the few true full MVNOs.

The specific type of MVNO model used (branded reseller vs. light vs. full) will depend on the provider‘s strategy, target market and internal capabilities. But the general value proposition is consistent: Save money by leasing network capacity and cutting out retail overhead vs. building out an entire mobile network from scratch.

MVNO Pros and Cons

The explosive growth of MVNOs in recent years is a testament to their appeal for certain types of consumers. But like any alternative to the mainstream option, MVNOs have their fair share of benefits and drawbacks. Here‘s a quick rundown of the main pros and cons of using an MVNO from the perspective of a digital technology expert.

Pros

  • Lower prices: This is the single biggest reason most people switch to MVNOs. Because they don‘t have to invest in building or maintaining cell towers and other network infrastructure, MVNOs have much lower costs than the Big 4 carriers. They‘re able to pass those savings onto consumers in the form of cheaper plans. It‘s not uncommon to see MVNO plans for half the price of comparable offerings from Verizon or AT&T.

  • Custom plan options: Many MVNOs cater to specific niches or usage profiles, such as seniors who only need basic talk and text, data-hungry users who want an unlimited plan, or frequent international callers. By designing plans for narrower segments, MVNOs can offer more tailored options than the one-size-fits-all plans from big carriers.

  • Flexible terms: Two-year contracts are a thing of the past as carriers have largely moved to a model where you pay for your phone separately from your service plan. But MVNOs take this a step further by offering mainly prepaid and month-to-month plans with no long-term commitments required. So it‘s easy to switch providers or change plans without penalties.

  • 5G access: The major carriers have been rolling out 5G networks over the past year, but that doesn‘t mean MVNOs are getting left behind. Many are already providing 5G data plans by piggybacking on their host network‘s 5G infrastructure. For example, Mint Mobile and Google Fi now offer 5G at no extra cost on T-Mobile‘s network, while Visible and Xfinity Mobile are doing the same with Verizon‘s 5G.

Cons

  • Smaller phone selection: MVNOs, and especially prepaid MVNOs, tend to have a much smaller selection of phones than major carriers. Many only offer a dozen or so budget and mid-range models from second-tier brands. For the most advanced phones, like the iPhone 12 or Samsung Galaxy S21, you‘ll likely need to bring your own unlocked device purchased elsewhere.

  • No bundling: Mainstream cable and broadband companies like Verizon and AT&T will often give discounts if you bundle services like home internet, cable TV and mobile. But since MVNOs don‘t offer those other services, you won‘t find those same bundle deals. However, some MVNOs like Consumer Cellular do offer discounted family plans for multiple lines.

  • Network prioritization: During times of heavy network traffic, like in a crowded stadium or festival with thousands of people trying to connect at once, major carriers will often prioritize their direct postpaid customers over MVNO customers. So MVNO users may see slower speeds or even temporary loss of service in those situations.

  • Limited support: With their smaller scale and laser-focus on affordability, most MVNOs simply can‘t match the level of customer support you get from major carriers. Many have limited or no brick-and-mortar retail locations, meaning you‘ll have to rely on phone/web support. And their support hours and responsiveness tend to be more limited.

MVNO Comparison

With over 100 MVNO brands in the U.S., there‘s no shortage of options to choose from. Here‘s a closer look at some of the most popular providers and how they compare:

MVNO Network(s) Plan Prices Best For
Mint Mobile T-Mobile $15-$30/mo Budget-conscious data users
Visible Verizon $40/mo Unlimited data on Verizon network
Consumer Cellular AT&T, T-Mobile $20-$55/mo Seniors, light data users
Straight Talk AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon $35-$45/mo Prepaid plans with bring-your-own-phone
Google Fi T-Mobile, Sprint, US Cellular $20-$70/mo International travelers, data flexibility
Cricket AT&T $30-$60/mo AT&T coverage on a budget

When evaluating MVNO providers, there are a few key factors you‘ll want to consider:

  • Coverage: The main factor that will determine an MVNO‘s coverage is which of the Big 4 networks it uses. Verizon has the widest coverage overall, followed closely by AT&T, and then T-Mobile/Sprint. You can check coverage maps on each MVNO‘s website to see if they offer good service in your area.

  • Plans: Look closely at the different plans offered by each MVNO you‘re considering. How much do they charge per month? Do they throttle data speeds after a certain amount? Are there overage charges? Is hotspot data included? Make sure to pick a plan that aligns with your typical monthly usage for talk, text and data.

  • Phone selection: As mentioned, MVNO phone selections tend to be limited. If you have your heart set on the latest iPhone or Android flagship, you‘ll probably need to buy it outright from the manufacturer or a retailer. But if you just need a basic smartphone and don‘t care about having the fastest processor or sharpest camera, you can likely find something that fits your needs from the MVNO.

  • International features: If you frequently travel abroad or have loved ones overseas, check to see if the MVNO offers international roaming or low-cost calling to your destination. Google Fi is a standout for its inclusive international coverage, but others like Ultra Mobile cater to specific immigrant communities with cheap global calling.

Who Are MVNOs Best For?

Now that we‘ve laid out the key information about how MVNOs work, let‘s discuss who exactly they‘re best suited for. While anyone can potentially save by switching to an MVNO, certain types of users will see the greatest benefit:

  • Budget-conscious consumers: If your main goal is to get reliable cell service at the absolute lowest price, it‘s hard to beat MVNOs. Switching to an MVNO can easily shave $20, $30 or more off your monthly bill compared to a plan from a major carrier. Just be aware that the cheapest advertised prices usually require you to prepay for several months of service up front.

  • Light data users: Don‘t think you need an unlimited data plan? You‘re probably right. Studies show the average U.S. mobile customer uses about 7GB of cellular data per month. Many MVNOs offer plans with 2-5GB of data for $20-$40 per month, which is more than sufficient for light-to-moderate users who mostly stick to basic web browsing, email and social media.

  • Prepaid and no-contract customers: Being free from contracts and credit checks are big perks for many MVNO customers. Credit-challenged consumers who can‘t qualify for postpaid plans often use MVNOs as a way to get mobile service. And if you‘re a commitment-phobe who likes to switch carriers frequently to chase the next great deal, it‘s easy to bounce between MVNO plans with no strings attached.

  • Families on a budget: Some of the best savings with MVNOs come when you add multiple lines. Mint Mobile offers an extra $5/month discount on each line when you add 2+. Consumer Cellular and Republic Wireless both give discounts ranging from $5-$20/line as you add them. If you need a family plan but are put off by the high prices from major carriers, MVNOs may be the answer.

On the flip side, there are also some users for whom MVNOs likely aren‘t a great fit:

  • Heavy data users: If you‘re regularly consuming 25GB+ per month, you‘ll probably be best served by an unlimited plan from one of the Big 4. That‘s not to say there aren‘t unlimited data plans from MVNOs, but they‘re more likely to have caveats like throttled speeds after a certain amount or lower prioritization.

  • One-stop-shoppers: Like the simplicity of having one convenient bill for your home internet, TV and wireless service? Most MVNOs can‘t match the bundle deals from larger providers. Similarly, if you like being able to go into a store for in-person tech support and troubleshooting, you may value the nationwide retail presence of major carriers.

  • Cutting-edge tech junkies: If you‘re the type who always wants the absolute latest device and fastest network speeds, MVNOs may leave you wanting. You‘ll have to wait longer for 5G access and the newest phones will be hard to come by. Early adopters will still probably be best served by getting their service straight from the Big 4.

The Bottom Line on MVNOs

There‘s no question that MVNOs have had a massive impact on the U.S. wireless market over the past decade. By offering cheaper plans, more flexibility and greater choice, they‘ve opened up mobile access to consumers who had previously been priced out, all while applying competitive pressure on the Big 4 to continue improving their offerings.

As 5G continues to roll out and mobile data usage keeps climbing, we can expect MVNOs to see steady subscriber gains in the coming years. Strategy Analytics projects that by 2024, MVNOs will account for over 50 million wireless subscriptions, or nearly 25% of the total U.S. market.

While MVNOs aren‘t the ideal choice for everyone, it‘s hard to argue against their value for certain types of users. If saving money is a top priority, and you‘re willing to sacrifice a bit when it comes to network priority, phone selection or customer service, there‘s never been a better time to see if an MVNO might be right for you.