Make very nauseous owls? Maybe videos need observation? Malicious vampires not okay? Hmm, no, that doesn’t sound right. So what exactly does MVNO mean? And are they any good?
What are MVNOs?
An MVNO is a mobile virtual network operator. That clears things up, right?
Okay, let's explain further. Regular old mobile network operators (MNOs) - like EE, O2, Three, and Vodafone - own, run, and maintain their own physical mobile network. MVNOs don't. Instead, they have a deal with one of the MNOs in which they lease some of that network's capacity and sell it on as mobile deals to customers. For instance, Virgin Mobile (an MVNO) rents capacity from EE's network (an MNO), and sells its own Virgin Mobile deals.
There are around 1,000 MVNOs worldwide, with more than 50 in the UK alone. They first began as a way of introducing more competition to the mobile market and breaking up monopolies, and that's still what they're doing today.
Because the MVNO has much lower overheads and no need to maintain mobile masts and what-have-you, it's usually able to offer much cheaper plans. So everybody wins: the MNO gets to lease out some network capacity that otherwise wouldn't be used; the MVNO makes money through deals; and you, the customer, get great value deals with all the coverage of the main network.
The exact plans available from an MVNO are usually completely different from those on the network whose infrastructure it uses. You'll have access to the deals and benefits of the MVNO, but have pretty much nothing to do with the MNO.
Examples of MVNOs
Here are some of the main MVNOs in the UK.
Carphone Warehouse's network, iD Mobile, is a MVNO on Three. It likes to keep plans simple and low-cost, and has some pretty good extras on offer given the price - like TakeAway, that lets you use your plan's allowance when you're abroad in 29 countries. All plans include 4G too, going up to a chunky 20GB per month. Then there's the Shockproof plan, with an automatic cap so you won't spend too much over your allowance - and its flexible one-month SIM-only plans.
giffgaff's a little different from other networks: it's online only, community-led and provides you with as much choice as possible when it comes to your monthly mobile bill.
It's owned by Telefonica - the company behind O2 - and uses the same network. It's almost completely community-led - customer service and other information is provided by other giffgaff users rather than a hired team.
Tesco Mobile, another supermarket in the mobile ring, uses O2's network to reach you. Like O2, it offers a range of pay-monthly contracts on handsets, as well as lots of SIM-only deals and pay-as-you-go. Its plans are packed with extras too, including Family Perks if you add multiple family members, Clubcard points, and flexible phone upgrades.
Yes, you read that right - Sky now does mobile plans. It uses the O2 network, and has some pretty cool features, including data rollover that lets you bank any unused megabytes each month, unlimited calls and texts, and discounts for Sky TV customers. It's really flexible too - you can change your plan at any time so, for example, you change data allowances if you need to.
It may be a supermarket, but Asda Mobile is also an MVNO, piggybacking on EE's network. Like its grocery-laden parent, it offers good value, and its 30-day bundles of calls, texts, and data give you both flexibility and peace of mind.
BT Mobile is another MVNO that runs on EE, and because it's from BT, it comes with some great perks. There's the BT Sport app for your phone, free access to public Wi-Fi hotspots, and discounts of £5 per month for BT broadband customers.
A basic SIM from FreedomPop, a 'freemium' MVNO on Three's network, gets you a small allowance (200 minutes, 200 texts, 200MB data) absolutely free each month. You can always pay a little extra for a tariff with more allowance - or take the opportunity to do surveys, download coupons, or take out free app trials to earn yourself more data for the month.
What Lebara Mobile does best is international calls. Sign up to a SIM, and you can buy a bundle of calling minutes to phone friends and family in countries all around the world, including Pakistan and China. It uses Vodafone's network and also offers 4G internet as part of its main plans.
Smarty is a subsidiary of Three, and thus uses its network. It offers a small range of SIM-only plans, all of which are on nicely flexible 30-day contracts. The best thing of all is that if you don't use all your monthly data, Smarty will buy it back from you - and you'll get money off your next bill.
VOXI comes courtesy of Vodafone, using its network and its general mobile prowess. It's got a handful of 30-day rolling SIM-only plans on offer, which you can only sign up for if you're aged under 30 (though you can continue using your VOXI plan once you turn 26, don't worry). The best thing this MVNO offers is free use of certain social media apps, including Facebook, Messenger, WhatsApp, and Instagram - any usage of these won't come out of your monthly allowance.
Plusnet Mobile, which uses EE's network, is seriously dedicated to saving its customers money - just like its broadband. Its straightforward plans are good value, only last 30 days, and come with a Smart Cap so you don't spend too much outside of your monthly allowance.
Richard Branson's mobile child, Virgin Mobile, runs on EE's network too. It's got a nice wide range of tariffs, and an excellent selection of some of the most popular handsets. Plus, if you're a Virgin Media broadband or TV customer you may even be able to snag an extra discount... or unlimited data. Features include data rollover, which lets you roll any unused data allowance over to the next month.
Pros and cons of an MVNO
- The main advantage of a deal with an MVNO is that their plans are usually very good value. Low overheads let the company pass on savings to its customers, and you won't have to pay as much.
- Coverage is just as good as a large network (MNO). Asda Mobile customers, for example, will get the same impressive coverage as an EE customer.
- Most networks, including MVNOs, have their own extra perks and benefits. BT Mobile has discounts for BT broadband customers; The People's Operator donates to a charity of your choice; and so on.
- MNOs usually have plans with higher allowances available than MVNOs, even though they may cost more. Three offers plans with unlimited data, for example, but iD Mobile (which piggybacks on it) doesn't.
- Speaking of data… While EE, O2, Three, and Vodafone offer plans with 4G mobile internet, not all MVNOs do.
- Although there are extra perks on the table, you'll usually get more from MNOs. Think early bird tickets, Now TV subscriptions, free use of Wi-Fi hotspots, and the ability to use your phone abroad at no extra cost.