What is an MVNO?
Odds are you're visiting this site today in hopes of finding the best MVNO or prepaid no contract cell phone plan to save money on your next phone bill. My goal is to help you do just that. First though, let's try and understand what an MVNO is.
MVNO stands for "Mobile Virtual Network Operator", and as such, an MVNO does not own or have it's own infrastructure ( wireless cell phone towers), but rather leases or rents them from the major carriers i.e. Verizon, Sprint, T-mobile, AT&T, etc. So for all intensive purposes an MVNO is simply one of the BIG 4 wireless carriers but running under a different name. Almost all prepaid cell phone plans and providers are offered through an MVNO. For instance, when you sign up for the prepaid wireless carrier Page Plus Cellular, you are essentially signing up for Verizon as Page Plus Cellular leases Verizon's cell phone towers. You'll get the same Verizon coverage through them at 1/2 to 1/3 of the cost! So now the question for you becomes, why are these MVNO's so much cheaper than the BIG 4 themselves? Well, if you've followed along you can see for starters they don't have any infrastructure to maintain. That is the responsibility of the BIG 4. Another reason is because when you sign up to get a new phone and contract with one of the BIG 4, they hide the cost of that new phone in your monthly bill (previously T-mobile was the only exception, but now the other carriers are beginning to be more transparent by offering no contract cell phones with monthly "installment" plans). That "free phone" you think you are getting may actually cost the BIG 4 $250 to purchase, so that cost gets passed on to you over the course of your contract with them. Often they are charging you much more for the phone than they actually paid for it so it's cheaper for you to buy the phone off of websites like eBay or Amazon and to sign up with a prepaid provider. The third reason why prepaid is cheaper, is that some carriers, mainly Sprint, don't share their roaming agreements with their MVNO's. What you might not know is that in areas where Sprint doesn't have it's own cell phone towers and coverage, Sprint pays Verizon so that its customers can "roam" on the Verizon network (for voice only). Virgin mobile, an MVNO owned by Sprint, does not have this same agreement. It only uses Sprint's towers so it's coverage isn't as good as Sprints. Finally, with our earlier example, Verizon does not let any MVNO use it's high speed LTE network. If you want the high speed you must choose Verizon and you must be POST PAID, but if you don't mind 3G Page Plus is an excellent choice.
What is the "Best" MVNO
Generally, when considering an MVNO, the most important things to look for are price and customer support. There really isn't a best mvno per se (at least coverage wise), because as described above, most have the same coverage as their MVNO partner with just a few exceptions. There are however some MVNO's that offer novel features which separate them from other MVNO's. FreedomPop, Ting, and Republic Wireless are three such MVNO's. These service providers also offer some of the cheapest cell phone plans on the market so let's examine them futher.
FreedomPop is unique in that they offer a completely free service featuring 200 minutes talk, 500 text, and 500MB of data. It's able to accomplish this by bypassing Sprint's voice network and using voIP instead. FreedomPop's service does come with a few caveats though as most smartphones they offer are older and their selection is somewhat limited. Recently they have added the iPhone 5 as one of their offerings and they have started a bring your own device (BYOD) campaign.
Republic Wireless is another unique mobile phone service provider as their plans feature the industries only hybrid wi-fi/cellular calling service. This means you can place phone calls, texts, etc over wi-fi , and if you lose your wi-fi connection, calls get rerouted seamlessly over to Sprint's cellular network. This wi-fi to cellular hybrid calling feature allows Republic Wireless to offer one of the cheapest smartphone plans on the market. The only downside is that they only offer two smartphones at the moment, the Motorola X, and the Motorola Moto G. If you are interested in Republic Wireless, I'd recommend you purchase the Motorola X through them, as for the time being the Moto G is not capable of 4G LTE speeds (although this should change soon).
Ting also offers low cost cell phone plans. What's unique about Ting is that they have unbundled their voice, text and data plans from each other. This means you can purchase from them what they call a “bucket” of minutes, a separate “bucket” of data, and one for text. You customize your plan with the amount of minutes you think you need, as well as the amount of texts and data you think you'll use. You can purchase a phone directly from Ting or you can BYOD.
AT&T based Consumer Cellular is another unique provider which also unbundles their voice minutes from their text and data. With Consumer Cellular you pick the amount of voice minutes you think you need, then you can add on a bundled text and data plan.
Please note, none of this writeup is an endorsement of any of the MVNO's mentioned. I just wanted to point out a few things that make them quite unique when compared to most of the other MVNO's.
Now, with all of this out of the way, it's time for you to find out which MVNO best suits your needs. So take a look around and start saving with your next cell phone plan.
Just in case you know of an MVNO we don't have listed or you are a new MVNO to the market, feel free to contact us to have the MVNO listed on our site. Do you want to see my picks for the best value MVNO for each of the BIG 4? Find out here!