What is an alternative mobile carrier?

Alternative carriers abound around the world, and are becoming an increasingly reliable source of low-cost connectivity in the U.S. Also known as an MVNO, or Mobile Virtual Network Operator, these alternative operators are often no-frills, and cost less than the incumbent networks on which they operate.

What is an alternative mobile operator?

The idea behind an MVNO is simple: instead of spending the billions of dollars building an entirely new nationwide network, companies enter into deals with the incumbent providers in a particular country — in the U.S., that's T-Mobile, AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint — to resell access to their networks. These often come in the form of contracts, where the smaller companies will buy space on the network — voice, messaging and, of course, data — at a heavily discounted, bulk rate, and sell it to you, the customer, for a profit.

This benefits everyone in the equation: the incumbent gets a bunch of money upfront to invest back into its business, or give to shareholders in the form of dividends; the alternate provider gets to sell access to the network at a lower cost to the incumbent while still making a profit; and you, the user, gets to purchase access to a high-quality, fast and reliable network at prices lower than those incumbents.

Such a market only works when there is robust competition in the wireless market, which increasingly exists in the U.S. and is extremely common across Europe, where the market was built with alternative providers in mind.

So what's the big deal?

Alternative providers don't often have the financial resources to build their own networks, which is why they purchase wholesale acces to the companies that do, like the ones mentioned above. But because these smaller companies don't have the overhead of maintaining a network — the virtual in the term MVNO — they have more flexibility to provide service at lower costs.

Because these smaller companies don't have the overhead of maintaining a network, they have more flexibility to provide service at lower costs.

For people looking just to connect to a network without all the frills and fringe benefits that come with a contract, these are great options.

The other thing is that MVNOs are usually aimed at single account holders — most eschew the share or family plan model of the larger incumbents — or specific demographics that may not be hit directly by the Big Four. In other words, alternative carriers are exactly that: meant to capture the customers remaining in the margins, or those looking to pay bottom dollar to avoid the often-superflous frills — T-Mobile Tuesdays (opens in new tab) come to mind — that are, many times, built into the cost of the plans of the incumbents.

Some alternative carriers, such as Cricket Wireless (opens in new tab) and Boost Mobile (opens in new tab), are owned by the Big Four themselves — AT&T and Sprint, respectively — which allows the major incumbents to get ahead of any customers who want to leave by offering them a simplified, often discounted alternative that keeps them in the network.

More than one network

But many alternative carriers don't just use one network. We've talked many times about Project Fi, which works with Google's Nexus and Pixel phones to make service incredibly easy and convenient. Well, Project Fi does't just connect to one network; it connects to four — T-Mobile, Sprint, U.S. Cellular in the U.S., and Three in the UK — deciding between the top one dynamically depending on the coverage.

Instead of spending the billions of dollars building an entirely new nationwide network, companies enter into deals with the incumbent providers in a particular country.

That's another advantage of these virtual operators: they can negotiate great deals with a number of carriers, and thanks to the beauty of the SIM card, give customers the best option wherever they are.

Fewer phones

Finally, one thing to keep in mind about alternative networks is that the companies often don't offer the latest and greatest smartphones. In fact, they often don't sell phones at all. That's because they don't want the hassle, and the overhead, of having to stock expensive devices they may not use. That's where unlocked phones come in.

If you're savvy enough to buy a phone that you know will connect to the network of a particular carrier, you can save big money over the same two-year period a phone is usually paid off when on a big carrier.

Your best option

Mint Mobile is your best option when it comes to an alternative carrier, or MVNO. Just read our review on the company's excellent value proposition to discover why.

Your turn

Are you subscribed to an alternative carrier? If so, which one, and why? We're really curious, so let us know in the comments!

Daniel Bader was a former Android Central Editor-in-Chief and Executive Editor for iMore and Windows Central. 

51 Comments
  • Where is the best place to purchase phones for these networks, and, how are these phone updated to the latest firmware?
  • Usually somewhere like Amazon, B&H, Jet, or Newegg. Some phones, like the OnePlus 3/3T have to be bought from the manufacturer. Just go to Amazon and under cell phones look at unlocked phones. I recommend an unlocked phone as you can switch carriers later if you want. Many of these MVNOs sell phones locked to their network, but tend to be budget and not great. For firmware updates, those will usually come as an OTA straight from the phone's manufacturer.
  • Thanks for the info. I may have to look into this. Seems like I could save some money.
  • Bestbuy and Walmart are the top two places that come to mind for MVNO specific devices. Meaning that the devices are locked to the carrier. That's the bad news, but the good thing is that they usually cost significantly less than an unlocked device and they come with a sim card and air card as a bonus. Bestbuy also has a decent selection of unlocked devices on display too so you can get the feel of what you want by holding the device and navigating it.
  • I bought my Nexus 6p from Google play 6 months ago. I subscribed to Project Fi upon receipt of my phone. It claims I don't have to switch to another sim card on my travels abroad and true enough when I landed @UIO on Jan 28 last month my phone immediately connected to a network as if I am still in the contiguous US. One gig of data in Ecuador costs the same one gig of data in the US. I moved to so many places in Ecuador & didn't lose data
  • I still have a FreedomPop account from 2 years ago.
    Downgraded the service when I got a newer device, but kept the free tier on my old phone. Now I have a free second line.
  • Don't these less expensive options also get a tad slower service or are they the same as their big brothers network? I always heard they throttle the speed back but I could be wrong especially when you get out of a larger city.
  • Not usually. My brother has been on Straght talk using the AT&T network for 2 years and we've found it no different then being direct. Girlfriend was on Straght Talk Verizon with the same results too. Both posting $45 a month to get 5gb of data and throttled speeds after versus a overage fee the two carriers love charging their direct customers.
  • It depends on the carrier. You'll want to check the specifics with the MVNO to see what they do. Cricket's Terms of Service states: "High-speed data access allows download speeds of a maximum of 8 Mbps for compatible 4G LTE devices and 4 Mbps for compatible 4G devices." That's 1MB/sec, which is fine for browsing or audio, but could hurt video streaming.
    Then again, when going with an MVNO, budget is more important than service.
  • I signed my daughter up at Christmas to MintSIM at Christmas with a pixel to give it a try and it has been great and very affordable.
  • Your daughter doesn't look too happy about it. :P
  • Awesome...Just read the story about Mint SIM today and their rates are amazing..I'm not a data hog but paying $35 for THREE months of service getting 2 GB of data is remarkable...Even one year at $16.58/mo paid in advance is outstanding too.
  • I've been on Project Fi for about a year. I switched jobs and had to pay for my own cell service again. I was using a 6P and ordered a Project Fi sim card just to mess around with. It was simple to activate and has been a decent choice overall. Hopefully they'll adjust prices to match carriers new unlimited plans but that's probably just wishful thinking.
  • I have a Straight Talk SIM- $42/month for "unlimited" talk text and data (5gb LTE Speeds). You can select which network (ATT, TMo, Verizon or Sprint) your phone will run on depending on your area coverage. The only downside to MVNOs for me are no International coverage, and sometimes the big four have roaming contracts with other providers for coverage (rural Maine for example) that are not extended to MVNOs that use their networks.
  • I use Fi. Have used Virgin (Sprint) in the past.
  • Donald Trump is a fan of alternative mobile carriers :P
  • Even a broken clock is right twice a day :)
  • I left Verizon with a GSM unlocked Note 4. I went to MintSim that uses T-MOBILE network. I have been happy with the service and have saved probably 50% from Verizon rates. I have never had a problem with data or calls. I made a good choice.
  • MVNOs are the answer for someone like me. The Big Four may be the way to go if you need a family plan, but not so much for singles.
    The only other trade-off is customer service, which is often abysmal. But if you need minimal hand-holding, go for it.
    I signed up for Straight Talk when I ordered my Galaxy Nexus and haven't looked back!
  • I've heard that some MVNOs will throttle signal strength as well. I believe they said that Straight Talk was one provider who did not throttle signal strength. I live in a near dead zone, so this makes a difference.
  • Well given that the MVNO's don't control the "signal" as they are simply renting carrier space from a big provider, it really wouldn't be possible to throttle signal strength would it. You comment seems very troll-ish and designed to spread F.U.D.
  • You heard right but I think you're misunderstanding what that means. I switched for Verizon to straight talk and I've always had a network speed meter in the notification bar so the first thing I noticed after making the switch was a drop in download /upload speeds. For Verizon I was getting 40-60 mbps and with straight talk I get 4-6 mbps for 5gb worth of Data. However, it's still a 4g signal for that data so I don't see any difference when loading web pages or surfing apps like AC. Even when streaming movies from Netflix, I've noticed no difference, the movies load quickly and stream without buffering. The only time I have noticed the throttled speeds is when downloading large apps from the play store or large files/Updates from the Internet. On Verizon a 50 mb app would download instantly, now it takes about 5 or 6 seconds to download. The thing is, you probably don't want to Download too much anyways because once you hit the 5gb data cap straight talk throttles the crap out of you. I might be able to send a text only email but forget sending a picture attachment or downloading a 3 mb update in the Play store, it goes so slow it will time out. Still worth it though. I save $40 a month over $500 a year, which is enough to give me extra cash to buy a new unlocked device every year.
  • I just switched from Verizon to Cricket. Speeds are capped at 8mps? but really not noticable. My HTC 10 has hiccups now and then since it's the Verizon version, so I'm not even 4g but HS, but other unlocked phones no issues. 5 lines for 120.00 a month? Love it. I'm using data for music and navigation. No issues so far. Web pages take an extra 10 to 20 seconds to load. Downloads are slower. Streaming no issues.
  • Here is a good site to check out. It lists many MVNOs but doesn't have them all. But this will help you determine which network the MVNO runs on, whether or not you can bring your own device, offers Unlimited data, and links to their websites. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_United_States_mobile_virtual_netwo... I used to be on RingPlus, which just went out of business. I had 6k texts, 6k minutes, 6 gigs all free every month. You had to listen to adds when you called someone, and voice was routed through some type of server. When choosing an MVNO, be careful how calls are handled. If you find a cheap MVNO, your voice may be routed through some terminal/server. If that's the case, there is a lag in voice. If you pause during a conversation, the other end things you are done talking, then all of a sudden both of you start talking again at the same time. Then both of you pause because you feel as though you are interrupting, then you both say, "go ahead". It's annoying. Also, a lot of these MVNOs offer data at 4G/LTE until you hit the limit. Then you are throttled to 2G. 2G is basically pointless. The good thing is, you don't have to worry about overages.
  • I live in the UK and used to subscribe to Tesco Mobile, an MVNO of O2. Now I'm on Three because lack of 3G coverage (let alone 4G). Kinda crazy how lacking the 3G/4G network coverage is in the UK for such a small country. Where I live only EE has 4G coverage, Three has decent 3G coverage but the two other major players O2 and Vodafone have no data coverage whatsoever. That instantly halves my options.
  • Couple of things to note with US MVNO's. First of all, some do throttle data speeds, some don't. Second, some like Virgin Mobile don't let you bring your own phone. You have to buy a Vergin mobile phone that will only work on their network. Others like straight talk will let you bring any unlocked phone from any carrier. Third, most MVNO's don't offer cutting edge technology like HD voice, WiFi calling, or advanced text messaging and Features like roll over minutes or pay as you go data. These can be deal breakers for some who need or want the extras. For example, I'm with a Verizon MVNO and although I am on the Verizon network and get excellent coverage, I don't get HD voice calling so when a call comes in, I loose the data network. No checking emails or receiving a picture over hangouts.
  • Wait. You make phone calls on your phone? People still do that??
  • Verizon is supposed to be rolling out VoLTE to the MVNO's in the next few months, at least that's what the Boom Mobile reps are saying.
  • I've been with Cricket since it first started as AIO Wireless. I pay $55/mo after tax and I get 20 GB of data and unlimited talk and text. Since they are owned by AT&T, I just pay for AT&T phones outright and drop a sim in. No need to unlock the device. Same coverage. No one has been able to beat this pricing. Yes, the data speeds are capped to around 8-10Mb, but let me tell you that it doesn't matter. I can stream 384kbps quality internet audio with no hiccups, so the speed really doesn't make that big of a difference. I use a Galaxy S7Edge, and it's really been a great experience. I only wish I was able to use hotspot tethering.
  • Why is there any mention of contracts in the article? None of the major US carriers offer contracts any more.
  • Sure they do. They are just "alternative contracts." Instead of locking you into a service contract, it's now a purchase plan for your phone. Instead of paying to cut your contract, you pay off the purchase price for your phone; which, in some cases, is even higher.
  • Of the ones I've tried, the only ones I really had any issues with are the ones owned under Tracfone (Straight Talk, Net10, Page Plus). I usually recommend that people use the prepaid of the actual carrier they want because of customer service if you have an issue, with the exception of Cricket and MetroPCS that are owned by the actual carrier. With Page Plus for example I had issues with the data speed not resetting when the month reset or the whole plan not resetting automatically like it should. I would have to contact customer service to get them to fix it and I shouldn't have to do that every month.
  • Hello, there is an alternative MVNO called H2O wireless, pretty good. They do not cap Internet speed like Straight Talk. Am getting around 70mbps at my end, $40 for 8gb.
  • I switched from Verizon to MetroPCS (owned by T-Mobile) for six months. The speeds were decent, but coverage was highly lacking in my area. I would take my work Verizon phone and personal Metro phone with me, and found many occasions where I had no signal on Metro, but still had coverage on Verizon. In the end, I went back to Verizon for the network.
    I won't claim this happens to everyone, but for me, having full coverage was more important than saving some money each month.
  • there's a bunch of Verizon MVNO's out there that could save you money over Verizon itself...
  • I know. I've looked into some of them but hadn't found anything that seemed much better than the big red themselves.
  • I have used several MVNOs. Currently on Cricket with 3 lines (they do multiline discount) one at 8GB & two at 5GB for $100 per month. Another line is on the T-Mobile/Walmart/online plan for $30 with 5GB and only 100 minutes. So $130/4 lines. Better than any of the regular carriers and it meets our needs. Before I was actually using AirVoice, Ultra Mobile, and H2 wireless. The plans I used mostly deducted amount from your prepaid accout for each call, data etc. Those worked well for when willing to live with wifi, leave cell data off but still have data for emergencies like needing maps because you are lost. Before that I used Tracfone which now has data but I didn't have a smartphone yet when most people did. There are a lot of options and plans depending on what you want. Research them in the forums here and elsewhere. There are still plans aimed at feature phones often targeting Seniors.
  • I recommend checking Howardforums.com fot learning about the pluses and minuses of specific MVNOs. Find out what customer service is like. What are the gotchas and what are the deals.
  • I have metro pcs and have pretty good coverage. I have 4 phones on my account and pay $152 a month. My line has unlimited date and the other 3 have 8gbs a month.
  • Cricket on a LG G3 with custom Rom. Saving a ton of money.
  • H2O Wireless is the best MVNO I've found. 5¢/min, 5¢/msg and per MB of data (data are not cheap, but $30 gets you 3gb. AT&T network, so good coverage.
  • After reading the story about Mint SIM I went to the site since I had questions. The Live chat has yet to answer after nearly 30 min and I had to leave a voice message on their phone line. Is this what we can expect with other MNVO carriers? Of course the value is amazing but support seems non-existant.
  • Customer service is atrocious for most MVNOs.
  • You're telling me! They've sent me several emails to which I've replied with questions but I've yet to get answers. Of course paying a fraction of what I pay at AT&T has much to do with it. It does concern me if there are network problems though but I've rarely if ever had any with AT&T.
  • I had answers within seconds of using Cricket and Boom's customer service chat feature, I was quite impressed, way better than trying to navigate the nightmare that is Verizon's phone system to get a hold of a live person. I've heard customer service with any MVNO owned by tracfone is just atrocious.
  • Cricket Wireless unlimited!
  • There are alternative carriers with family plans that can save you a bundle. Because my situation changed a few years ago from traveling full-time to largely working out of my home, my need for mobile data diminished. Several months ago I switched our family plan from AT&T (who wouldn't negotiate) to Ting and dropped my bill by almost 75%. The downside was that Ting uses T-Mobile, whose network coverage stinks in my area, even when their misleading coverage map indicates otherwise. The good news is that Ting has no contract, so I switched our family plan to Consumer Cellular. Don't believe their ads that imply they're only for seniors. CC uses AT&T's network. It's a little more expensive than Ting, but my great coverage is back, and I'm still paying less than half of what I was at AT&T. Regarding Cricket, one of its benefits is that its prices include taxes and fees; a family plan of $100/month is exactly that, not the 16%+ add-on fees that other carriers charge. I suggest checking out the site Whistleout, where you can input the amount of lines, minutes, texts, data you're looking for and get recommendations. It's how I found Ting. Shop around.
  • Typo: "Well, Project Fi does't just connect to one network; it connects to four — T-Mobile, Sprint, U.S. Cellular in the U.S., and Three in [the] UK"
  • You say many alternative carriers don't use just one network, but the only one mentioned is Fi. Who are others? I thought Fi was the first and only carrier to do this.
  • On ting currently... Its working just as good, paying almost 1/3 or 1/4 of the price I used to pay with no change in network capabilities.
  • I use Tracfone wireless because they use verizon towers (So they have good coverage) and they do refill plans, which is all i can affoird (Minutes, Texts, And data)