Mobile Network Operator vs Mobile Virtual Network Operator

Mobile Network Operators (MNO) and Mobile Virtual Network Operators (MVNO) are companies that provide mobile cellular services to consumer and business customers. Mobile cellular services primarily include voice calls, text messages (SMS – Short Message Service) and mobile internet. MNOs and MVNOs are different from each other and use different approaches to offer value to their customers.

A Mobile Network Operator (MNO) is a telecom company that owns a full mobile network, including cell towers that are part of a radio network; A Mobile Virtual Network Operator (MVNO) is a company that does not own a radio network and buys capacity from an MNO to connect their customers to the network.

Buying a mobile phone subscription has never been easy, and there are plenty of options, including online and retail stores, to buy a SIM card and phone to get you started. As a customer, we have many choices in terms of the device we want (e.g. a smartphone), contract duration (e.g. pay monthly or prepaid) and the monthly allowance (e.g. calling minutes, text messages, amount of mobile data).

There was a time when a mobile phone subscription could only be offered by mobile network operators such as Vodafone, Verizon, T-Mobile etc. Nowadays, even supermarkets like Walmart, ASDA and Tesco have their own branded SIM cards, which connect you to the mobile network. Do you wonder how that happens, considering cellular services do not represent the primary business of companies like Walmart or ASDA?

What is a Mobile Network Operator – MNO?

A Mobile Network Operator or MNO is a mobile telecom service provider that owns an end-to-end mobile network, including the radio and core network. An MNO uses its own radio network to connect customers to the rest of the network so that they can access the cellular services of the MNO.

Mobile Network Operators or MNOs are telecom companies that own an entire mobile network and have cell towers mounted in locations throughout a town, city or country to provide nationwide cellular coverage, ideally, with no coverage gaps. Owning a mobile radio network allows an MNO to be fully in control of providing cellular coverage in any geographical location.

MNOs are companies like Vodafone, T-Mobile, Verizon, AT&T, Telefonica, Airtel, China Mobile, Etisalat, Orange, etc. An MNO invests in an entire mobile network, including the most expensive mobile radio network that they purchase from telecom network equipment vendors like Ericsson, Alcatel-Lucent, Huawei, Nokia Networks etc.

Mobile Network Operators are also called Mobile Network Carrier or just Carrier. They purchase frequency spectrum (carrier frequencies) from local regulatory authorities such as Ofcom in the UK or FCC in the US to operate the network on licensed frequencies. These frequencies allow cell towers or base stations to communicate mobile signals and create cellular coverage in any geographical location.

What is a Mobile Virtual Network Operator – MVNO?

A Mobile Virtual Network Operator or MVNO is a mobile telecom service provider that does not own a full mobile network. An MVNO may own a core network, but it does not own a radio network and buys radio network capacity from an MNO to connect customers to the MVNO’s network to access cellular services.

Mobile Virtual Network Operators or MVNOs are companies that do not have their own radio network. Instead, they buy radio network capacity from Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) to run a mobile service. An MVNO essentially piggybacks on an MNO’s radio network (cell towers) so that they do not have to buy the base stations and frequency spectrum to create cellular coverage.

While MVNOs do not own cell towers or base stations, they may or may not own the rest of the mobile network architecture to run their cellular services. A mobile radio network is one of the most expensive resources that MNOs purchase and deploy throughout towns, villages, cities and highways to make sure customers receive mobile signals wherever they go.

Depending on how much control an MVNO wants, it may decide to become a light-touch MVNO (a reseller) or a full MVNO with its own mobile core network, billing & charging, branding, sales channels etc. An MVNO can also decide to become someone between a full MVNO and a reseller. Irrespective of which model they choose, the cellular coverage of an MVNO always depends on the radio network coverage of the MNO they choose. For example, Tesco Mobile is an MVNO in the UK that uses Telefonica O2 (MNO)’s radio network.

How do MNOs and MVNOs offer services to their customers?

Multiple mobile network operators can co-exist in a country, and they are all required to purchase licensed frequency spectrum from local regulatory authorities. For example, in the UK, the regulatory body that issues the frequency spectrum to mobile operators is called Ofcom, but other countries have their own regulatory authorities generally controlled by the government.

The frequency spectrum is a scarce resource for mobile network operators. Therefore, they must use it wisely and efficiently to get the most value out of it by providing good indoor and outdoor cellular coverage to customers. The frequency carriers or channels from the overall frequency spectrum are assigned to the radio units within mobile operators’ radio networks.

Cellular coverage is created by transmitting and receiving radio signals between the base station and the mobile phone at specific frequencies. Mobile operators procure the different network components, for example, the radio network, mobile core network, backhaul/transport, operations & maintenance system, billing & charging etc., from telecom network equipment vendors.

Mobile Network Operators (MNO) and Mobile Virtual Network Operators (MVNO) sit between the mobile network and the customers, and they understand the customers’ needs. They use that information to create bespoke products, propositions and services to cater to a variety of use cases for customers. They run the mobile network as smoothly as possible to offer their customers connectivity and other inter-related services.

Generally, MNOs and MVNOs have several sales channels, including retail and online shops, partners & resellers and account management teams (for B2B sales). The size and region of a mobile network operator can also impact how they function. For example, in Europe, many large mobile network operators have a Group function (e.g. Deutsche Telekom AG, Vodafone Group, Telefonica, etc.) and local presence in different countries in the form of operating companies (e.g. T-Mobile Germany, Vodafone UK, O2, etc.). Depending on the company and the product, there can be different levels of collaboration between the Group function and the operating companies (OpCo) to create successful products in the most efficient way.

Do you need MNO or MVNO for cellular coverage and services?

You can purchase your mobile phone subscription from either an MNO or MVNO because they both allow you to connect to a mobile network to access all types of cellular services. In addition, they may also have other services that can be included in your bundle, for example, security, gadget insurance etc. If you buy from an MNO, they are responsible for your end-to-end connection. On the other hand, if you buy from an MVNO, they use the services of an MNO to connect you to the radio network, which can then connect you to the service platforms of an MVNO.

As a customer, your mobile cellular coverage depends on the radio network, which is always provided by an MNO, even if you buy your cellular service from an MVNO. The mobile cellular service can be provided by either MNO or MVNO, depending on whose core network you are connected to.

If a mobile network operator (MNO) does not install its base stations at the right places in a given geographical location, customers cannot get proper cellular coverage. MNOs have an extensive network of macro, micro and small cells throughout towns and cities within a country to provide nationwide coverage. They also have roaming agreements with partner MNOs in other countries (either directly or through an aggregator) so that when their customers travel to those countries, the partner MNOs can keep them connected. If you are with an MVNO, you need to check the cellular coverage of the MNO they are using to find out what your local network coverage looks like.

Here are some helpful downloads

Thank you for reading this post. I hope it helped you in developing a better understanding of cellular networks. Sometimes, we need extra support, especially when preparing for a new job, studying a new topic, or buying a new phone. Whatever you are trying to do, here are some downloads that can help you:

Students & fresh graduates: If you are just starting, the complexity of the cellular industry can be a bit overwhelming. But don’t worry, I have created this FREE ebook so you can familiarise yourself with the basics like 3G, 4G etc. As a next step, check out the latest edition of the same ebook with more details on 4G & 5G networks with diagrams. You can then read Mobile Networks Made Easy, which explains the network nodes, e.g., BTS, MSC, GGSN etc.

Professionals: If you are an experienced professional but new to mobile communications, it may seem hard to compete with someone who has a decade of experience in the cellular industry. But not everyone who works in this industry is always up to date on the bigger picture and the challenges considering how quickly the industry evolves. The bigger picture comes from experience, which is why I’ve carefully put together a few slides to get you started in no time. So if you work in sales, marketing, product, project or any other area of business where you need a high-level view, Introduction to Mobile Communications can give you a quick start. Also, here are some templates to help you prepare your own slides on the product overview and product roadmap.

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