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What is an MVNO?

By Phil Wilkinson-Jones | Thursday, January 28th 2021

MVNO refers to a mobile provider that doesn't own its own network. It's a term that few outside the mobile phone industry will be familiar with, but here in the UK we have loads of MVNOs – and you’ll almost certainly have heard of at least a couple of them. You may already be a customer of an MVNO and not even know it.

If you want to learn more about MVNOs then you’ve come to the right place. We’ll explain exactly what one is, how they do what they do and examine the reasons why you might want to use one.

What is an MVNO?

MVNO stands for Mobile Virtual Network Operator. Sometimes called virtual networks, MVNOs are companies that offer mobile services but do not own or operate their own network. Instead, they use a network run by a mobile operator. For example, giffgaff is an MVNO – it doesn’t have it’s own network but instead offers its services using O2’s mobile network.

In the UK, there are four mobile network operators – O2, EE, Three and Vodafone. Each of these not only offers mobile services of its own but also acts as a host network for two or more MVNOs. The MVNOs, or virtual networks, benefit from having the same coverage as their parent network but without the expensive overheads. The savings tend to be passed on, with MVNOs often undercutting their parent networks with cheap mobile deals.

How do MVNOs work?

To understand how MVNOs work you need to understand how mobile networks work, but don’t worry – we’ll keep it brief. Each of the four UK mobile network operators (O2, EE, Three and Vodafone) owns a certain amount of spectrum – another word for the radio frequencies used to broadcast mobile phone signals. Utilising the bands of spectrum they have paid to have access to, operators broadcast 3G, 4G and 5G signals around the country using a network of masts.

The process of buying spectrum and installing masts is time-consuming and expensive. That’s why MVNOs bypass the whole thing and lease wholesale services (the use of spectrum, masts etc) from one of those big network operators.

Which mobile providers are MVNOs?

There are a lot of MVNOs in the UK – this is one of the reasons our mobile industry is so competitive. These are the big ones, a little about each one and the network they use.

  • 1p Mobile – Running on the EE network, 1p Mobile offers cheap pay as you go SIMs
  • Anywhere Sim – Offers multi-network SIMs that run on all four UK networks (EE, Three, O2, Vodafone)
  • Asda Mobile – The supermarket chain offers cheap SIM deals and runs on the EE network
  • BT Mobile – The UK’s biggest broadband provider also offers mobile services, handset deals and more. It uses the EE network
  • Gemini Mobile – Runs on the EE network and donates 5% of your bill to your chosen charity
  • giffgaff – One of the UK’s biggest MVNOs, giffgaff runs on the O2 network and has a wide range of flexible mobile deals
  • iD Mobile – Carphone Warehouse’s very own network, iD Mobile runs on the Three network
  • JOi Mobile – Uses the Three network and offers to make your monthly bill free if you refer five friends and they all join
  • Lebara Mobile – Lebara offers budget-friendly SIMs and cheap international calls. It runs on Vodafone’s mobile network
  • Lyca Mobile – Another MVNO specialising in cheap international calls, Lyca also offers data top ups, pay as you go handsets and more. Runs on the O2 network
  • Now Mobile – Offers cheap international calls using its pay as you go SIMs. Uses the EE network
  • Plusnet Mobile – The Yorkshire-based provider of cheap broadband also offers SIM deals using the EE network
  • Sky Mobile – Sky Mobile runs on the O2 network and offers deals on iPhones, Samsung Galaxy phones and more, plus the ability to store your unused data and use it at a later date
  • SMARTY – Owned by Three and operating on Three’s network, SMARTY offers contract-free SIM deals and money back for unused data
  • Superdrug Mobile – The high street chain offers contract-free SIM-only plans and runs on the Three network
  • Tesco Mobile – Tesco runs its mobile service on the O2 network and offers a wide range of mobile deals and SIM plans, offering Clubcard points for paying your bill
  • Talk Home Mobile – Uses the EE network and has SIM deals with inclusive minutes to call Bangladesh, Nigeria or Pakistan
  • Talkmobile – Runs on Vodafone’s network and offers SIM-only deals with the first three months discounted
  • To The Moon Mobile – Offers flexible pay as you go plans and runs on the EE network
  • The Phone Co-op – A good choice for the ethically-aware consumer, The Phone Co-op is a provider of Fairphone and runs on the EE network
  • Truphone – Truphone offers eSIMs for compatible devices, giving you coverage in 113 countries. In the UK, it uses the Vodafone network
  • Utility Warehouse – Offers simple SIM deals with discounts available if you buy multiple SIMs. Runs on the EE network
  • Virgin Mobile – Virgin offers a wide choice of phones and lets you spread payments over three years, making its deals some of the cheapest around, Run on EE
  • Vectone Mobile – Offers cheap SIM deals with data rollover and the option to add international minutes. Uses the EE network
  • VOXI – Vodafone-owned VOXI uses its parent company’s network and offers unlimited data for social media use
MVNO Network
1p Mobile EE
Anywhere Sim EE, Three, O2 & Vodafone
Asda Mobile EE
BT Mobile EE
Gemini Mobile EE
giffgaff O2
iD Mobile Three
JOi Mobile Three
Lebara Mobile Vodafone
Lyca Mobile O2
Now Mobile EE
Plusnet Mobile EE
Sky Mobile O2
SMARTY Mobile Three
Superdrug Mobile Three
Tesco Mobile O2
Talk Home Mobile EE
Talkmobile Vodafone
To The Moon Mobile EE
The Phone Co-op EE
Truphone Vodafone
Utility Warehouse EE
Virgin Mobile EE
Vectone Mobile EE
Vectone Mobile Vodafone

Why choose an MVNO?

MVNOs give you the exact same service as mobile network operators, there’s really no discernable difference to the consumer in terms of connecting to the network, making phone calls etc. The differences between different mobile providers come when you start looking beyond the basics of making a phone call, sending a text or using data.

The UK’s four mobile network operators (O2, EE, Three and Vodafone) tend to offer a lot of extras on their mobile deals, whether its tech, subscriptions to streaming services or priority concert tickets. But MVNOs have their own selling points, too. Let’s take a look at some of them.

Cheap mobile deals

As we mentioned earlier, it’s a lot cheaper to run an MVNO than it is to maintain a mobile network. The savings from this are often reflected in the deals that MVNOs are able to offer. Virgin Mobile, Tesco Mobile and iD Mobile offer some of the very cheapest smartphone deals around and are always worth a look if you’re in the market for a new handset.

Cheap SIM deals

Some MVNOs don’t offer handsets and instead focus on providing very competitive SIM-only or pay as you go deals. Providers like 1p Mobile, Asda Mobile, SMARTY and Plusnet Mobile offer great value-for-money if you’re happy with the phone you have or are looking to buy a new handset outright and pick up a cheap data and calls package.

Unlimited social media data

VOXI, an MVNO owned by Vodafone and running on Voda’s network, offers endless social media data on its plans as standard. Some plans also include unlimited streaming on the likes of YouTube, Netflix and Amazon Prime Video.

Cheap international calls

If you’re often making calls to friends and family in other countries, then it’s worth considering getting a SIM from one of a number of MVNOs that specialise in low cost international calls. Lebara, Lyca, Now Mobile and others all do this. Costs to call each country vary from provider to provider, so it’s best to do a quick comparison of the countries you call most often.

Multi-network SIMs

MVNOs such as Anywhere SIM roam across multiple networks, reducing the amount of time you spend without a signal. Your phone will find a ‘home’ network and should your signal ever drop out entirely, will automatically scan for another.

Support a cause

There are some MVNOs that allow you to feel good about your ethical choices while using your phone. Gemini Mobile donates 5% of your bill to a charity of your choice, while The Phone Co-op invests in green energy and works with socially responsible organisations including Fairphone and Fairtrade.

Strong mobile coverage

MVNOs offer real choice because the quality of coverage is the same for customers of MVNOs as it is for customers of the host network operator. So if you have good service on EE, you know you’ll also enjoy strong coverage with any of the MVNOs that operate on the same network.

Frequently asked questions

What does MVNO stand for?

MVNO stands for mobile virtual network operator. It describes a mobile provider that doesn’t own the network it operates on.

Which MVNOs use the EE network?

A number of MVNOs use the EE network. Some of the most popular include BT Mobile, Plusnet Mobile, Asda Mobile and Virgin Mobile.

What network is giffgaff on?

giffgaff offers its mobile services using the O2 network.

What is the best UK mobile network?

The vast majority of studies looking at network coverage and data speed have EE coming out on top, but all four UK mobile networks have extensive 4G coverage and are in the process of rolling out 5G.

Do MVNOs have deals on the latest handsets?

Not all MVNOs do handset deals, but certainly the likes of Virgin Mobile, Tesco Mobile, BT Mobile, Sky Mobile and iD Mobile are worth checking out if you’re in the market for a new phone.

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