What is an MVNO?

When is a cell company not a cell company? What if a service provider doesn’t provide a service? These may seem like nonsense questions, but once you learn about MVNOs, it will all make sense.

Spectrum Mobile? Really?

You might have seen ads for Spectrum Mobile, Consumer Cellular, or other cell companies you hadn’t heard of. They promise compatibility with a lot of phones, nationwide service, and high quality calls. How can a company you’ve never heard of, spring out of nowhere and provide this sort of service? It’s actually very simple: They don’t.

US laws, as well as laws of other countries, allow a company to buy cell service in bulk and resell it. In other words, it works like this. A company, let’s call it “Bob’s Cellular,” wants to start offering cell service. They’ll contact a company like AT&T or Verizon, and guarantee to pay a minimum price of $100,000 a month. AT&T or Verizon does some software magic, the lawyers do their bits, and all of a sudden, Bob’s Cellular is in business. Any phone that works with the provider they contracted with with work with Bob’s, and all of a sudden it seems like Bob is in the phone business. He can even offer prices the same or lower than the company he’s contracting with, and that’s perfectly legal.

And this is an MVNO?

Yes, this is an MVNO. MVNO stands for “Mobile Network Virtual Operator” and it means, “company that sells cellular but doesn’t actually provide it.” In some cases MVNOs do great business. In others they are a complete scam. The ones that are scams don’t last very long, luckily.

How can an MVNO have prices lower than a real cell company?

It comes down to the technology. Companies like AT&T and Verizon promise their customers the best and fastest cell service. They want the clearest calls and the most extra features. MVNOs offer less and can charge you less.

As a company like AT&T moves from 3G to 4G to LTE to 5G, they still have the older equipment in place. Cell equipment can last 10 years out in the world even though people want data speeds you couldn’t get 10 years ago. So there’s this older-generation tech out there. Cell companies lease this older-type cell service to MVNOs.

That’s why you’ll hear ads from an MVNO that say “On the same network as AT&T” or “Using AT&T technology” but you won’t hear them say that they’re as fast or as clear as AT&T. It’s an arrangement that works for everyone. The “real” cell companies find a way to make money from older cell tower equipment and customers pay less in order to get less-than-cutting edge technology.

Is an MVNO for you?

There are a lot of MVNOs out there. Virgin, Spectrum, Cricket (actually owned by AT&T), and others offer low prices and easy, no-contract no-hassle plans. Most of the time these are designed to appeal to people who don’t want the latest and greatest. That’s probably not you, o Solid Signal Blog fan. It might be someone you know but you’re probably in it for the cool technology.

You probably want to go with AT&T’s Unlimited plans that give you all the data you could want, and the fastest possible speeds. (Yeah the lawyers would stick in some other language here, you know what it is.) And if you’re not already signed up for AT&T Unlimited, give my friends at Signal Connect a call. Their number is 888-233-7563 and they can help you get all set with the latest and greatest. MVNOs may be good for your parents or your friends, but this is the one way to get the best possible service. And really, that’s what you want.

About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 8,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.