When looking for a new phone, plan, or carrier, there are so many different options out there that it can begin to feel overwhelming. You’ve no doubt heard of Verizon, T-Mobile, and AT&T (commonly referred to as The Big Three), but maybe you’ve also heard of smaller brands like Metro, Mint Mobile, and Google Fi.
At a glance, it might seem like these brands are all the same, but when it comes to choosing the right carrier for you, there are some crucial differences that you should be aware of. Knowing the differences, pros, and cons can help you make an informed decision the next time you decide to shop around for a new carrier.
Read on as we dive into two distinct kinds of wireless service providers—Mobile Network Operators and Mobile Virtual Network Operators. We’ll cover what they are, what their pros and cons are, and most importantly, what you need to know to get the best deals and experience for your unique needs.
Mobile Networks At a Glance
When you think of the term “mobile network,” what comes to mind? Maybe the latest carrier commercial you saw on TV, or maybe a coverage map showing the plethora of network strength across the country?
At a high level, a mobile network is the collection of radio towers distributed across the country where each radio tower acts as a “cell.” When these individual cells are combined, they’re able to provide radio coverage over large areas, and the devices that use these radio signals (i.e., your mobile phone) can communicate between these cells even while you’re moving through them.
Why Is This Important?
While knowing the definition of a mobile network probably won’t score you any points in your next trivia game, it’s worth knowing because the sheer scope of these mobile networks means it takes many resources to build them. There are only three carriers that own mobile networks with nationwide, end-to-end coverage; Verizon, T-Mobile, and AT&T. But as you’ve probably already guessed, there are plenty more carriers out there that offer service with national coverage.
This is where Mobile Network Operators and Mobile Virtual Network Operators come into play. With just three mobile networks independently owning everything needed to deliver reliable network services, carriers (the brands selling you access to those networks) can be separated into two distinct groups: the carriers that own these networks and the carriers that “rent” access those networks.
Mobile Network Operators (MNOs): Collectively known as “The Big Three,” the national carriers are Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile (which now includes Sprint). These three brands, also known as MNOs, have radio spectrum, end-to-end service, and cell phone towers.
Mobile Virtual Network Operators (MVNOs): MVNOs are phone carriers that don’t own their networks and lease access to another carrier’s network. For example, Mint Mobile uses T-Mobile’s network, so Mint pays T-Mobile a wholesale rate and sells its various plans.
Now that you know the difference between MNOs and MVNOs, we’ll dive deeper into each kind of service provider to highlight their pros and cons and what features/selling points might make them a great fit the next time you’re considering a new wireless carrier.
The Big Three Carriers
As the name suggests, the big three are the three major providers virtually everyone knows; Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile. These three brands have radio spectrum, end-to-end service, and cell phone towers. Essentially, they independently own everything needed to deliver reliable network services, and as a result, will generally cost more for that reliability and service.
Generally speaking, switching can save you big, especially if you’re on Verizon or AT&T, as they traditionally have the most expensive plans. If you want a well-known brand, T-Mobile plans are almost always cheaper and offer extensive nationwide coverage. However, if you have multiple lines on your plan and use many data, the big three are mainly the carriers to choose.
- Unlimited Data Plans: Unlimited data means you can access what you want as often as you wish. Depending on the unlimited plan, you may be able to access everything at top speeds all the time, or what’s called a priority data plan. This plan will have access to faster speeds even when there is heavy usage on the network.
- Data Prioritization: This can influence the service quality you receive if a network is too congested. Think of mobile networks like the Wi-Fi router in your home, the more people access it, the slower the speed. The same thing applies to networks. The more people using a specific cell tower, the lower the coverage quality.
Because MNO customers pay the carriers premium rates on the Big Three carriers' networks, they are prioritized when this network congestion happens; meaning MVNO customers will likely see slower data speeds and worse network coverage.
- Great Deals On New Devices: Carriers run promotions ad nauseam to entice you to switch. If you are willing to switch carriers, you may be able to score a great deal on a new phone. That said, make sure to read the fine print as not everyone qualifies for advertised discounts. These promotions usually come with 24-month payment plans. This is an attempt by carriers to get you to stick with them because you can’t switch until your phone is paid off. You are not tied to them by a contract, but most of the time, you have to pay off the remaining balance on your phone payment plan if you switch carriers.
- Affinity Discounts: AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile offer an array of affinity discounts that can save you hundreds of dollars per year. If you’re 55 years old or older, you could snag a discount of up to 42% at T-Mobile. That almost cuts your bill in half! Most of the other discounts will save you 20-33%, so they’re nothing to scoff at.
- Cost: If you don’t see value in added perks like streaming services, don’t have more than one line on your plan, and aren’t really worried about coverage concerns in your area, then the costs of a major carrier plan may not be worth it. It all comes down to what you need from your service, how much data you use, etc.
MVNOs, or budget carriers, have various “flavors” that can appeal to different needs, price points, and interests. At a high level, MVNOs are separated into three distinct categories: MVNOs that are part of an MNO, MVNOs that are not part of an MNO, and MVNOs that are part of cable companies. Sounds confusing, right? Here’s a simplified breakdown:
MVNOs That Are Part of a Major Carrier: these MVNOs (also called flanker brands) are created by one of the Big Three carriers to target different demographics of consumers. For example, Verizon owns Visible, AT&T owns Cricket Wireless, and T-Mobile owns Metro. These MVNOs offer prepaid plans at a significantly lower cost.
MVNOs That Are Not Part of a Major Carrier: These carriers operate virtually on the existing networks of the Big Three. These carriers get network access at wholesale prices and use cost-savings strategies like operating online only, offering no unlimited data, etc., to offer prepaid plans at a much lower cost than postpaid plan options.
Cable MVNOs: One of the best switching opportunities that save big while still providing premium data is cable MVNOs like Xfinity Mobile, Altice, and Spectrum Mobile.
They offer amazing prices, especially for single line and unlimited plans, but come with a big caveat. You must already have them for home internet to add-on wireless service. So, you’re out of luck if you have Verizon FiOS, WOW! or RCN.
- Cost: MVNOs are often more affordable alternatives to major networks as they offer a stripped-down version of the service--targeting a prepaid market--making it easier to switch carriers at the best prices.
- Quality of Service for Price: Because budget carriers rely on larger, more established carriers for their coverage networks, for the money you spend, coverage can be good.
- Flexibility: Prepaid options mean you can pretty much cancel or change carriers at any time without fear of penalties and extra charges.
- Prioritization: Due to MVNOs “piggybacking” on other networks, when they experience network congestion (too many people connecting to a specific tower), the budget carrier will likely be deprioritized—meaning your service is more likely to drop than the host carrier’s.
- Lack of Additional Perks: Relative to the big three carriers, MVNOs do not include the added “perks” like streaming services, plan-specific discounts, etc.
- Coverage: Not all carriers are subject to the same roaming agreements, so if you travel outside the MVNO’s local network, your signal may be deprioritized—meaning your coverage and/or data speed may be slowed down.
Which is Right for You?
At the end of the day, whether you choose the Big Three carriers or smaller MVNOs all depends on your unique needs and the perks/savings you’re looking for in a plan. If you have multiple lines and all use a decent amount of data, an MNO may be a better choice. However, if you don't need a lot of data and aren’t too concerned about additional perks and benefits, MVNOs may be better suited for you. It’s all about matching the right features and benefits.