What Is an MVNO (Mobile Virtual Network Operator)?

What Is an MVNO (Mobile Virtual Network Operator)?

You might not be familiar with the phrase ‘mobile virtual network operator.’ However, you’ll be more familiar with mobile virtual networks than you realise. In fact, you might be benefitting from one right now. This guide will explain what an MVNO is, how they differ from standard UK mobile networks, their advantages, and more.

What is an MVNO?

A mobile virtual network operator, commonly abbreviated to MVNO, is a third-party provider of wireless communications services. This means rather than owning the wireless network infrastructure like a main mobile carrier, they lease network services – aka telephone and data spectrum – from said carriers.

To describe it in simpler terms, you have the four main carriers: O2, EE, Vodafone, and Three. These each offer their own wireless telephone and data services. As well as offering them directly to customers, carriers sell bulk access to their services to MVNOs. An MVNO will then effectively act as a middleman, selling these services to their own customers. That means if you sign up with an MVNO, the coverage received is exactly the same as what would be supplied by the parent network.

Why would a customer opt to use an MVNO rather than one of the main operators? After all, wouldn’t you benefit from more competitive pricing by signing up directly with the parent network? Not necessarily. This is because when an MVNO leases network services, it does so at wholesale rates. As MVNOs set their retail prices independently, they can go lower than the standard rates of their parent network.

Of course, it’s not a case of an MVNO taking all the credit from the work done by the parent network. To acquire and retain customers, they have to utilise their own marketing, customer service, sales personnel, and billing support systems. Alternatively, they may bring a similarly abbreviated supplier of services onboard: a mobile virtual network enabler (MVNE).

MVNOs in the UK: Who are the main providers?

Even if you weren’t familiar with mobile virtual network operators before reading the above section, make no mistake: you have been surrounded by them for some time. The world is home to approximately 1,000 MVNOs at present – and a sizeable chunk of those can be found in the UK.

To give you a taste, here are the UK’s main MVNOs, along with the network they’re based on:

Even if you haven’t actively searched for a new mobile or SIM card provider in recent years, most of these – if not all of them – will be familiar names. Aside from being regular fixtures in TV advert schedules and other marketing materials, they are also well-known due to being highly rated among all other providers.

In fact, some would go as far as to say that it’s better to select an MVNO rather than go with one of the main networks.

How does an MVNO differ from a main mobile network operator?

For a more defined breakdown between the two, let’s describe how a main mobile network operator functions in comparison to an MVNO.

A mobile network operator defined

A mobile network operator is a provider of mobile telecom services. They function with an end-to-end network. That means they are responsible for and handle every aspect of the network, including both the core and radio network. They use cell towers throughout the country to deliver nationwide cellular coverage, taking every necessary step to avoid potential coverage gaps.

In the UK, a mobile network operator purchases frequency spectrum from Ofcom. Doing so ensures their network functions on licensed frequencies, allowing for mobile signals to be communicated across their cell towers to produce cellular coverage.

As they own the radio mobile network, an operator ultimately possesses full control of the cellular coverage they supply.

How an MVNO is different from a mobile network operator

Unlike a main mobile network operator like Vodafone or O2, an MVNO doesn’t own a full mobile network – although it could utilise its own core network. As it doesn’t have a radio network of its own, an MVNO purchases radio network capacity from the aforementioned main mobile network operator. This gives them access to the operator’s cellular services, allowing their customers to use the shared telephone and data spectrum.

By going this route, an MVNO doesn’t have to invest in base stations and their own frequency spectrum. They effectively piggyback off the infrastructure that is put in place and managed by a mobile network operator. This saves a considerable amount of money – particularly when you factor in how many cell towers are required for nationwide network coverage.

However, unless it decides to run as a light-touch MVNO (essentially a reseller), an MVNO will operate with its own mobile core network. This can include managing its branding, billing and charging, and sales channels. Although ultimately, it has to rely on the operator’s radio network coverage for everything to function as expected for their customers.

What are the advantages of using an MVNO?

You know how an MVNO works. You understand how it is different from a main mobile network operator. You also know about different providers such as Tesco Mobile, SMARTY, and giffgaff. However, why should you opt for an MVNO when selecting your next SIM only deal? Let’s go over the main benefits that answer that question.

A more affordable choice

When you’re selecting a SIM or mobile deal, there’s one factor that is considered more than any other: cost. If the price isn’t right, you won’t settle on a deal – it’s that simple. Well, when it comes to MVNOs, the good news is they are an affordable option.

Actually, that’s understating a little. When matched up against their parent networks, you will usually find contracts with much more favourable payment plans. That might sound strange considering they are effectively selling the same coverage as a secondary outlet, but it is true. They don’t have to cover the cost of owning their own network capacity, and they’re able to pass these savings down to the customer. Add in that they are able to lease network services at wholesale prices, and MVNOs are in a strong position to charge less.

Plus, as MVNOs bring in a large number of additional customers, a parent network isn’t likely to upset the applecart and drop their prices to compete.

Great for SIM only deals

You’d expect us to promote this point, but there’s no denying that MVNOs are generally an excellent pick when travelling down the SIM only road. This extends from the previous advantage. Their ability to supply financially attractive contracts is only further enhanced when only the SIM is involved.

With more and more people suffering from ‘handset fatigue,’ where they’re sick of upgrading their phones every year, there’s a growing importance to select the best SIM only deal available. By going with deals provided by MVNOs, you are able to save a significant amount of money.

Better flexibility

It’s not only affordable plans. An MVNO will also typically offer up flexible options that best suit your needs. Prepaid plans where a contract is not needed, pay-as-you-go plans, custom plans with different data, text, and voice allowances – there are usually numerous choices up for grabs. This flexibility means you don’t end up paying for anything you don’t need from your mobile plan.

Strong customer service

Even though you don’t want to use customer service if you can help it, you cannot underestimate the need for this facility when necessary. When you encounter a problem with your mobile service, you want this to be resolved effectively and as fast as possible. That’s only possible when the customer service is up to scratch.

That’s not something you typically have to worry about with MVNOs. The customer service delivered by an MVNO is usually at a high standard – especially when compared to signing with one of the main carriers. This is because rather than focusing on maintaining networks, they can zone in on supplying a service to their customers.

Are there any negatives with MVNOs?

While we’d like to only shine a light on the pros, there are certain drawbacks to using an MVNO. One such negative is that some notable benefits are off the table. For example, the applauded O2 Priority isn’t something you can enjoy if you are with an MVNO. Another disadvantage is they rely specifically on their parent mobile network operator to supply coverage. That means if there are any problems with that coverage, they have no control over solving said issues.


Overall, the benefits of signing up with an MVNO far outweigh the negatives. More affordable, flexible, and with greater customer service, you are more likely to find the best SIM only deal for your needs through an MVNO.

For evidence, you just have to browse through the best deals highlighted at SIM Only Finder. From Lebara to Asda Mobile, we have all of the best MVNO deals available.

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