What is a MVNO

MVNO stands for:
Mobile Virtual Network Operator

Okay, but what does it really mean? Acronyms are nice and helpful in industry conversations between professionals who love this kind of jargon (sadly we do, too), but it doesn’t really help you, the customer, understand what is actually happening or the service you are getting when you sign up for one.

To put it simply: Mobile Virtual Network Operators are resellers of wireless service, which is actually provided by the likes of T-Mobile, Verizon, AT&T, and so on. Most MVNOs only resell one carrier’s services. For example – Mint Mobile sells T-Mobile. Cricket Wireless sells AT&T. So, if you have a Cricket phone guess what? You have AT&T service! Betcha didn’t know that. The MVNO will often take over the billing, customer service and other administrative features that are associated with the clients they sign up. Here are some of the pros and cons of working with an MVNO so you can make the most informed decision.

The Pros of MVNOs

  1. Cheap, Cheap, Cheap How the process works is sort of like a telecom hedge fund. A company, lets call it CELLULAR X (because X makes things sound cool…right, is that still a thing?), puts out an ad saying "does anyone want cheap cell phone service?" The ad gets thousands of replies from interested customers. To simplify the process CELLULAR X calls T-Mobile and says they have a thousand customers who want service with them and therefore negotiates and gets a bulk rate which they mark up a little and then pass on to you. This is why you can find wireless service for big discounts over dealing with the major carrier directly.
  2. The Choices Are Yours…And Yours Alone At the time of writing, there are 139 (and who knows how many by the time you read this) MVNO Brands in the United States, and even more internationally. Therefore, as the consumer, you have your pick of which brand you like best. Due to this highly competitive nature, prices have continued to drop. However, remember: although the names maybe different each MVNO is ultimately selling one of the same five wireless services. Therefore, before signing up for an MVNO make sure to see if they provide what you need. Reading the reviews from customers can shed a lot of light on the level of customer service you might receive.

The Negatives

MVNOs are great if you want to save money but after that it falls off rather quickly. Here are some of the negatives that you could experience when working with an MVNO.

  1. Limitations, Limitations…Did we say Limitations?…Also That Since the MVNO collective bargains for their huge customer base they will often aim at providing a "one size fits all mentality" which might not fit your needs. In some cases, you cannot BYOD (sorry, acronyms again…Bring Your Own Device) and are required to use a phone they pick. Also, things like international dialing may not be available or cost extra fees. They may not have plans that cover tablets…etc. There maybe no Tethering or Hotspots…the list goes on. You can’t make assumptions about what is included or can even be added on.
  2. Complaints…… Part of the MVNOs drive to get lower and lower prices from their carrier partners is by agreeing to more and more absurd demands. For example – you can opt-in to agreements where you cannot be compensated for "dropped calls" or "downtime" you may experience using their service, which can be a big bummer. The MVNO might agree to carrier protections that are not favorable to you, the customer. Make sure you know the details!
  3. What Do They Control Again? A MVNO can sign you up for a service but, ultimately, they do not control it, manage it or do anything with it. So, when you have a problem with call issues, number porting or anything else – a call to a MVNOs support desk is just asking them to follow up with their carrier partner. It becomes a game of… telephone. Often support staff can deal with some common issues because its their job after all but for some of the more complex stuff they need to refer out. This can dramatically delay resolution.
  4. Porting Issues Porting a number is a pretty simple procedure when you are dealing "one on one". For example, AT&T asks for a number to be moved to T-Mobile. It can get tricky when MVNOs get involved. When you port a number over to Cricket Wireless you are asking them to send a request to AT&T who then asks for the number from T-Mobile. Then T-Mobile responds to AT&T that is okay to take the number. Then AT&T needs to receive it, then has to tell Cricket that the number is loaded. After that Cricket has to make a few adjustments on their side and then your number should work. When this all works it is near seamless but when it breaks down it can get confusing and takes some time.

So Is Google Fi A Carrier Or Not?

Despite how omnipresent Google is in our lives (they even helped with this article) they are not carrier. GoogleFI is an MVNO just like any other… although they are big one. Where GoogleFi is special is that instead of selling one carrier’s service they sell a few. Currently their roster includes Sprint, T-Mobile and US Cellular. The idea here is that all three carriers work harmoniously to help Google and you their customer get the best service. For example, when you enter an area that has strong Sprint service your calls are transported through their network, and when you are in a strong T-Mobile zone guess what happens? A wonderful idea but GoogleFi is still limited in the same way that all other MVNOs are when it comes down to it. More Questions, More Answers, More Information To learn more about MVNOs, if they work for your business/family or if you have any other questions about phones feel free to send an email to [email protected]

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