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What is MVNO (Mobile Virtual Network Operator)? UK MVNOs: a guide to virtual networks

What is a Virtual Network?

While physical networks are connected through cables, virtual networks are connected through the internet. This allows several computers and devices to operate within the same infrastructure, regardless of their geographical location. Using complex software management, virtual networks create a simple, consistent, and easily accessible user interface. A feature otherwise unavailable through traditional networking models.

In a virtual network, there is no need to physically connect two devices together, nor do they need to be within a certain distance of one another to share information. It may come as no surprise that these models are popular with teams who work between several locations when conducting their daily operations. By adopting virtual networks, companies can test, access, and modify data with ease, assisting with the smooth-running of essential technological processes.

One of the most popular virtual networks lies within the mobile phone industry. That is, virtual mobile operators. Let’s take a look at these technological phenomena in a little more detail. 

What is an MVNO?

An MVNO is a type of mobile virtual network. Admittedly, you may be thinking to yourself, what on earth is an MNVO? I’ve never heard of that before. Chances are, you are more familiar with them than you anticipate. The acronym MVNO stands for Mobile Virtual Network Operator. They are companies that work with larger organizations to provide mobile phone networks to consumers. Networks using EE are perhaps the most popular of all UK virtual mobile networks. Take a look at the list of UK MVNO networks below; you will likely recognise a few.

  1. Anywhere Sim - O2, Vodafone, EE, Three
  2. Asda Mobile - EE
  3. Auracall Travel Talk - EE
  4. Axis Telecom - EE
  5. BT Mobile - EE
  6. BT OnePhone (BTOP) - EE
  7. C4C Mobile - EE
  8. Call & Give - EE
  9. Champions Mobile - O2
  10. Giffgaff - O2

You can see that the majority of MVNO companies in the UK work with EE. Though they are the most commonly used provider, there are others competing for consumers in the market. O2, Three, and Vodafone are also popular hosts, each providing their own network deals. It is from these hosts that MVNO’s operate. If you are still not fully aware of how this works, try not to worry. It really isn’t the simplest concept to grasp. Let’s break it down.

The host company, take O2 as an example, will be in possession of radio transmitters. They will use these transmitters to provide a signal to their customers. When you enter a contract with O2, you will essentially be paying for the connection you receive from them. However, the masts that produce these signals are expensive, and unless a company has a lot of money to invest in them, it is unlikely they could buy and maintain their own. To avoid incurring substantial costs, MVNO’s simply use other companies' transmitters. Sticking with the O2 example, firms like giffgaff will rely on the host infrastructure to provide their clients with a reliable mobile network. The remaining service delivery, however, will be handled by the MVNO themselves. Makes more sense now, right?

You will often hear this referred to as piggybacking. Typically, piggyback networks are much more affordable than host networks, despite offering the same network strength. There are several online sources that help consumers to find the best deals. The Money Saving Expert’s Cheap Mobile Finder is a great option to check out.

Piggyback mobile networks are particularly appealing to those who live in areas with a poor signal. Imagine a scenario in which the only provider who can offer you a reliable connection is EE. It would make sense to take out a contract with them and stay with them. Correct?

While of course, it is true that you should select a provider who offers the best signal, this does not necessarily mean you should stay with them. Switching to an MVNO could be your ticket to success. Remember, the MVNO company uses the same antennae as the host organization, just this way, you are dealing with an entirely different firm on the marketing front. You could thus access deals otherwise unavailable, helping you to save money, without compromising on signal strength. This is best illustrated pragmatically. Say you are currently contracted with EE. Asda mobile may come along and offer you the same deal at a much smaller price point. This way, you are securing the best EE MVNO, with no extra cost. There’s nothing to lose!

What is a full MVNO?

Unlike a light MNVO, the only thing a full MVNO lacks is its own radio network. Companies operating on a full MVNO, therefore, are not only expected to handle consumer relations but further, install and maintain their own core network infrastructure. As part of this, the MVNO is broadened. It is capable of managing SIM cards, call flows, SMS flows, and data flows.

What is a light MNVO?

A light MVNO relies more heavily on the hosting provider. They carry no responsibility for the mechanical operation of the network, helping the firm to focus on enhancing the quality of their customer relations. Put simply, while the MVNO provider takes care of sales, services, and marketing, the host takes care of the network's main infrastructure and carries the burden of any associated costs.

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