Mobile Virtual Network Operators Explained

Mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs) are companies that offer wireless connectivity but do not operate their own network hardware.

In the United States, this nearly always means that MVNOs pay wholesale rates to operate using at least one network owned by one of the “Big Four” providers—Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, or Sprint. The network used by an MVNO is sometimes referred to as the “host operator.”

A list of U.S. MVNOs can be found here.

MVNO structures vary tremendously

Some MVNOs have direct partnerships with network operators. Others work through middle-man companies that handle much of the work involved in reselling access to a host operator’s network.[1]

Some MVNOs will offer services from only one carrier (e.g., Boost Mobile[2]). Other MVNOs offer services from multiple carriers, but consumers must choose just one carrier (e.g., Red Pocket Mobile allows customers to select a network from any Big Four provider of their choosing[3]). It’s even possible to draw on multiple networks simultaneously. Google Fi regularly switches between T-Mobile, Sprint, and U.S. Cellular’s networks.[4]

Many MVNOs are independently-owned companies, but a handful are fully owned by a host operator (e.g., Cricket Wireless is owned by AT&T[5])

General differences between host operators and MVNOs

There are a few ways in which MVNO services tend to differ from service purchased directly from host operators. Note that these are only general trends.

  • MVNOs heavily target the prepaid, no-contract market.
  • MVNOs tend to offer lower monthly prices than their host operators.
  • MVNOs generally don’t have the same roaming arrangements that host operators have. Accordingly, MVNOs generally offer a smaller coverage area than host operators.
  • MVNO subscribers may be subject to performance limitations or restrictions that direct subscribers to host operators are not affected by.

MVNO Limitations

Prioritization

When networks are under heavy loads, network access for MVNO subscribers may be prioritized lower than direct subscribers’ access to the host operator.

For example, at a crowded, outdoor festival, T-Mobile’s network might be under an unusual load. In this case, T-Mobile’s direct subscribers may have higher download speeds than those using T-Mobile-based MVNOs.

Throttling

Occasionally, MVNO data speeds may be throttled. For example, Cricket Wireless has LTE download speed capped at 8Mbps per second on many of its plans.[6] Note that many MVNOs do not throttle general data transfer speeds, and those that do are generally transparent about their policies around throttling.

Footnotes

  1. These middle-man companies are referred to as mobile virtual network enablers (MVNEs) or “mobile virtual network aggregators” (MVNA). These terms mean different things, but my understanding is that there is (a) substantial overlap with some companies acting as both an MVNA and an MVNE and (b) some nebulosity around definitions and distinguishing features of each type of company.
  2. Boost Mobile operates exclusively on Sprint’s network. For more details, see the Wikipedia page on Boost Mobile.
  3. See this archived page from Red Pocket Mobile’s website on 3/21/2019. The page presents customers with the option to select their choice of AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint, or Verizon’s network.
  4. This is only for Google Fi phones. Phones that aren’t designed to be specifically compatible with Google Fi are limited to only T-Mobile’s network. See this excerpt from the Google Fi FAQ page (accessed 3/21/2019, archived here):

    “Unlike other phone plans, Google Fi offers cellular coverage across three leading networks (T-Mobile, Sprint, and U.S. Cellular) and Wi-Fi hotspots, with a phone designed for Fi. Phones that are not designed for Fi but are still compatible with Fi have nationwide access to the T-Mobile network.”

  5. From Cricket Wireless’s Wikipedia page on 3/21/2019 (archived here):

    “Cricket Wireless LLC is a prepaid wireless service provider in the United States, a wholly owned subsidiary of AT&T Inc.”

  6. As of 3/21/2019, Cricket states the following on it’s Mobile Broadband Information web page (archived here):

    “Cricket caps download speeds on all its rate plans at 8Mbps (LTE)/4Mbps (4G) except for the Unlimited Plan which is capped at 3 Mbps (LTE/4G) and the Unlimited Extra Plan.”

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