MVNO Buyer's Guide

What is an MVNO?

A mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) is, for all practical purposes, a wireless service provider that does not own its own infrastructure. Instead of operating on its own towers, an MVNO licenses network access from another carrier, often at wholesale rates. In turn, the MVNO then re-sellls this access to customers using its own billing system, marketing, and employees.

Prepaid services, including those from MVNOs, are different from the traditional postpaid plans and services from the big, tier-one carriers.

For starters, you’ll pay for your services ahead of time; postpaid customers are billed for their usage. And, while it might resemble a traditional rate plan with minutes, messages, and data, there are subtle differences from the establishment of major carriers.

Get to Know: NET10

As a company that operates almost virtually, NET10 doesn’t have any towers of their own, nor do they have any retail presence. Moreover, you won’t find paper bills, activation fees, or overage charges.

Using both CDMA and GSM technologies, NET10 lets customers bring their AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint, Verizon, or unlocked GSM phones. READ MORE…

Get to Know: Walmart Family Mobile

Using T-Mobile’s network for its service, Walmart Family Mobile is a service provider that exists almost virtually. While you cannot go into a dedicated Walmart Family Mobile store, customers can pay for their service at Walmart locations. Moreover, if you go to Walmart’s website, you can shop for phones and SIM cards. READ MORE…

Target Audience

The landscape has evolved over time and continues to improve for both prepaid and MVNO players. Customers continually get more bang for their buck as each service offers up new features or initiatives.

To say that there is a specific demographic for MVNOs is not entirely accurate. But, there are a few things that come with such services that might appeal a target audience.

Below are some reasons to consider an MVNO for your wireless needs. Note that this is not an exclusive or exhaustive list. But, if you find yourself nodding along as you read through, perhaps you’ll want to give one a try.

  • Not loyal to a particular handset brand
  • Already own an unlocked smartphone
  • Able to troubleshoot on own; do not rely on phone or retail stores for tech support
  • Less prone to travel, particularly to other countries
  • Do not make or receive many phone calls
  • Do not need much data – 5GB or less per month
  • Not concerned with data speeds
  • Have access to Wi-Fi on consistent basis

Drawbacks

As great as MVNOs are for some consumers, there are certain drawbacks which could completely rule them out for others. For instance, if you plan to go with a family plan, you might be better served looking at a tier-one carrier first.

Other things to consider are whether the carrier you are looking at allows you to bring your own device (BYOD) or if you have to purchase through them. Or, if it does allow for bringing of existing phones, does it support the bands and networks? And, what good is a killer phone and rate plan combination if there’s no service in your area? Check the coverage maps!

Familiar Names

It might surprise you to learn that some of the carriers you see advertised on TV and in print are actually MVNOs. Indeed, there are a number of players you see on a regular basis who actually rely on another carrier for network support.

Popular or well-known MVNO brands include MetroPCS, Boost Mobile, Cricket Wireless, and TracFone. Each of these operates independently as a company but ultimately fall back on the towers established by the big four brands.

As a general rule, the larger the tier-one carrier, the less prone they are to license or resell their own networks. Think of it in terms of owning a hotel. If you had a property that was always booked up and doing well, would you worry about reselling or licensing to a middle-man?

On the other hand, if you struggling by comparison or are looking to help your bottom line, you might sublet a few rooms to someone else. This is why someone like Verizon is far more stringent to go the MVNO route as Sprint.

Other reputable MVNO names that you may have seen pop up along the way include Virgin Mobile, Net10, Straight Talk, and Consumer Cellular.

There are quite a few MVNO brands in the US market, each of which is slightly different from the next. Further, there are also emerging companies which might be worth keeping an eye on, particularly if you find yourself on Wi-Fi for much of the day.

Tailored Services

Some MVNOs such as Republic Wireless, Ting, and TracFone give customers more control over their talk, text, and date. In fact, it’s possible to specifically design a rate plan with the exact number of each criteria. Don’t care for messaging or talking much but just need a certain amount of data? That’s possible in some cases.

Project Fi

Launched in Spring 2015, Project Fi is an MVNO from Google that falls into a slightly different category. Rather than relying on one particular network for service, Project Fi uses a combination of T-Mobile, Sprint, and US Cellular towers for coverage. Moreover, it also utilizes Wi-Fi for service, too. Indeed, calls can transition seamlessly from one connection to another.

The downside to Project Fi, for now at least, is the handset selection isn’t all that diverse. There are only a select number of devices designed to handle the blended coverage, including the Nexus 6P, Google Pixel, and Motorola Nexus 6.

The People's Operator

With rate plans that start as low as $16 per month, TPO lets customers kick 10 percent of that over to a charity of their choosing. A recent addition to the portfolio allows for unlimited data for as low as $55 per month. Bring your own Sprint, Boost, Virgin, or unlocked GSM phone and purchase a SIM card to get started with half off your first bill.

Republic Wireless

With a growing roster of smartphones to pair with its service, Republic Wireless offers what’s known as “Bonded Calling“. In other words, it taps Wi-Fi networks for coverage first, falling back to T-Mobile and Sprint towers. Rate plans range from $15 per month (Wi-Fi Data) up to $60 per month (6GB Data).

TracFone Wireless

As the leading no-contract service provider in the nation, TracFone taps into Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, or Sprint networks. Yes, depending on where you live, you get different coverage. The catch is you’ll have a specific selection of devices to choose from. Rate plans run as low as $15 per month but you may want to look to the bundles to get more bang (minutes, data) for your buck.

Each of the four major wireless carriers in the United States offers its own respective prepaid service. While they are not the same as what you’ll get through each of the following MVNOs, they’re similar in many ways. Specifically, if coverage is a main deciding factor, start with the network you know works well in your area. The same goes for handsets; are you using an existing phone through one of the major players?

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