What is an MVNO?

You may see the term MVNO written here or elsewhere. This in simple terms means a “Mobile Virtual Network Operator“. Which is a bit of a mouthful, for something that is quite simple to explain: it basically means a network is piggybacking off another network.

Confused? It’s easier to explain it by using some examples.

Who provides mobile coverage in the UK?

Firstly, remember that there are only four actual mobile networks in the UK:

  • O2
  • EE
  • Three
  • Vodafone

These companies build and own their own physical mobile phone network – including things such as the mobile phone masts you see dotted around the country.

What other mobile providers are there?

Of course, there are many other mobile providers in the UK and you’ll no doubt know many of them already.

These are MVNOs – i.e. the companies that don’t own their own physical mobile networks, they instead rent coverage from one or more of the four actual networks (EE, O2, Three & Vodafone). They are known as virtual network operators

Examples of well known virtual network operators are:

  • Asda Mobile – use Vodafone’s network
  • BT – use EE’s network
  • CMLink – use EE’s network
  • Ecotalk – use EE’s network
  • Extremeconnect – use EE’s network
  • FreedomPop – use Three’s network
  • Giffgaff – use O2’s network
  • iD Mobile – use Three’s network
  • Jump – use EE, O2, Three and Vodafone’s networks
  • KC Mobile – use O2’s network, seems to be closed
  • Lebara – use Vodafone’s network
  • Lycamobile – use O2’s network
  • Now PAYG – use EE’s network
  • Plusnet Mobile – use EE’s network
  • SMARTY – use Three’s network
  • Sky Mobile – use O2’s network
  • Superdrug – use Three’s network
  • TalkTalk Mobile – use O2’s network (TalkTalk mobile no longer sells its own deals, but refers its customers to O2 directly)
  • Tesco Mobile – use O2’s network
  • T-Mobile – use EE’s network
  • Talkmobile – use Vodafone’s network
  • The Phone Co-op – use EE’s network
  • Truphone – use O2’s network
  • Utility Warehouse – TelecomPlus – use EE’s network
  • Virgin Mobile – use EE’s and Vodafone’s networks. Following the merger of Virgin Media and O2 in 2021 Virgin Mobile customers will be moved over to O2’s network in the near future.
  • Voxi – use Vodafone’s network

Are MVNOs worth getting on SIM Only?

The short answer is yes, most “MVNO” SIM Only plans are just as good – and in some ways better – than those offered by the Big Four.

Some examples of MVNO plans are those by VOXI, which is actually owned by Vodafone, but has a completely different plan and tariff system.

Often MVNOs will cater to different customers and different markets. Using VOXI again as an example, they market their mobile network towards students & young people. You can see this from their advertising as well as by comparing the VOXI SIM plans. It’s obvious that they’re not chasing the boomer segment, for example.

Here’s a YouTube video by VOXI, showing that they’re clearly targeting the Millennial and Gen-z folk:

So, are these kinds of network any cheaper?

MVNOs will often be cheaper too, strangely, even though they use the same network. It’s a bizarre concept but it’s true. A lot of people erroneously believe that MVNO networks are always more expensive because they think the Big Four won’t let them compete on price, but this isn’t true. A lot of MVNOs are owned by the Big Four, they aren’t competing with them.

VOXI have incredibly cheap SIM Only deals including an unlimited plan.

Which is the BEST of the MVNOs?

There are several recommended MVNOs in the UK, each with their own unique offerings. Some examples include:

  1. Giffgaff: This MVNO operates on the O2 network and is known for its low-cost plans and community-driven approach.
  2. Virgin Mobile: This MVNO operates on the EE network and offers a range of plans that are tailored to different types of users, including students and business customers.
  3. Lebara: This MVNO operates on the Vodafone network and is targeted towards customers who frequently make international calls.

MVNOs are also a great option for people looking to keep their existing phone number when switching networks. They are able to provide this service as they are piggybacking on an existing network.

In addition to the cost and flexibility benefits, MVNOs also offer a high level of customer service. They are able to provide quick and efficient customer service as they are not dealing with the same volume of customers as the major operators.