When conversation turns to mobile phones, a standard question people have for each other is, “Who are you with?” It’s a question which often then leads to discussions around tariffs, data allowances, available handsets and the number of free texts bestowed per month.

Whether a mobile device is used for work, leisure, or a bit of both, choosing the right network is an important decision. Admittedly, for many it is not a decision that huge amounts of time are dedicated to. The comforting familiarity of the big-name networks is usually enough to make the choice brief and uncomplicated. However, for those who are a little more adventurous and discerning when it comes to desired features and plans, deciding on a network provider becomes a serious undertaking and one which invariably leads towards the dominion of the MVNO. 

What is an MVNO?

MVNO stands for Mobile Virtual Network Operator. They are sometimes referred to as Virtual Networks or Leased Networks, but it’s all the same thing. Though these terms might sound a tad technical, the concept they describe is much simpler than you might imagine. MVNOs can be thought of as tenants in a property, the established, household name mobile operators being both the builders and owners of that property.

The big, mobile operators, like O2 and Vodafone, build the infrastructures needed to provide a service, doing everything necessary from building the cell towers to negotiating with the government for frequencies. With the infrastructure ready, an MVNO can come in and rent some of that service to then re-package and sell on to their own customers.

The whole arrangement is very much win-win for all concerned. The parent networks couldn’t use up all the network they’ve created even if they wanted to, and by renting some out to MVNOs, the costs incurred in creating the network are offset. For the MVNOs, there is no whopping initial investment to build their own network, and they can pretty much just start selling phone plans to customers straight away.

So…should I be using an MVNO?

Unfortunately, this is not a question that delivers a straightforward ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer. It depends very much on how you use your device. If you just want a predictable contract with a free handset upgrade every 18 months or so and a few sweeteners such as cinema vouchers and free gifts thrown into the deal, going with one of the major operators might be your best bet. However, if you have certain additional considerations, going with an MVNO might be much more preferential, considerations such as the following:

Cost – If you’re main concern, for whatever reason, is cost, you are pretty much guaranteed to find lower prices amongst MVNOs. With most MVNOs having nothing like the overheads of the major operators, those savings are passed on to their customers and they can be significant.

How significant? Well, FreedomPop, an MVNO renting space on Three’s network, charges a one-off sign-up fee of £7.95 and, providing users stay within the 200 minutes, 200 texts and 200 MB allowance, they’ll never pay another penny thereafter. Cheap in this instance, means free.

International calls – Be it for business purposes or because family and friends live overseas, the need to make international calls is more pressing for some than others. For these people, MVNOs like Lebara or Lycamobile present a compelling alternative. Available as SIM Only 30-day contracts, bundles, or PAYG, customers can acquire deals to ring abroad for much less than with one of the major operators, or indeed, any other MVNO.

Simplicity of plans – In a complicated world, some people want phone plans that are as simple, transparent and predictable as possible. There are MVNOs out there that are building their whole business on offering just that. Smarty, for example, offer a small range of 30-day rolling contracts that are designed to be more uncomplicated and easier to manage than any of the competition. They even refund customers for any data they don’t use.

Specific features – Generally speaking, MVNOs don’t try and be all things to all people, they pick a niche and work to maximise the potential that niche can return. VOXI, operating within Vodafone’s network, offer 30-day rolling contracts with generous data allowances for no more than £20 per month. Recognising that many people use their data to browse social media apps, VOXI provide unlimited use of apps such as Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp without eating into data allowances.

Final thought

If a current contract is coming to an end or you just need a new service for a device, it might be worth taking a moment before diving straight into a lengthy agreement. Have a think about how you use your phone and what you wish your current provider offered, with a little bit of research, you might just come across an MVNO that suits you in ways a major operator never could.