What is an MVNO?

A mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) is, for all practical purposes, a wireless service provider that does not 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-sells 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.

Some will be online-only and not offer retail stores for support. Select providers may dangle discounts for prepaying a few months at a time.

Target Audience

To say that there is a specific demographic for MVNOs is not entirely accurate; however, 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. This is not an exclusive or exhaustive list but more of a guideline as to why you might want to sign up for one.

  • 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 – often around 5GB or less per month
  • Not concerned with data speeds
  • Have access to Wi-Fi on consistent basis

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 Metro, Boost Mobile, Cricket Wireless, and TracFone. Each of these operates independently as a company but ultimately fall back on the towers established by the bigger 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’re 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 when compared to Sprint.

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?

Notable MVNO Brands