What is a mobile network operator?

When we buy mobile services e.g. a SIM card, we have many options available nowadays. We can either go to a dedicated retail store or website of a mobile operator e.g. T-Mobile or just get a SIM from our local supermarket or newsagent. It depends on whether you are looking for a pay-as-you-go connection or a monthly subscription but either way it is an important decision especially if you are entering into a pay monthly contract. Many supermarkets nowadays also sell their own SIM cards e.g. Tesco which can possibly make you wonder “do these supermarkets now have a mobile network also?” Well, that is exactly the kind of question we are going to answer in this post. Let’s have a look below to find out what a mobile operator (MNO) is, how it operates and how an MNO is different from an inter-related entity called Mobile Virtual Network Operator (MVNO).

A Mobile Network Operator (MNO) also known as Mobile Operator or Mobile Network Carrier or just Carrier is a company that operates a mobile network to offer mobile services to consumers and businesses. The MNO owns the mobile base stations installed at the cell sites throughout a geographical location to provide us with the required network coverage. The services they offer can include voice calls, text messages (SMS), picture messages (MMS), mobile data, international minutes & texts, roaming and other similar services.

A Mobile Virtual Network Operator (MVNO) does not own a frequency spectrum and hence does not operate a radio network (so no base stations). MVNOs purchase radio network capacity from MNOs and then utilise that network capacity to offer their own services to the customers. The network coverage of an MVNO depends on which MNO’s network they are using. For example, in the UK, Tesco Mobile is an MVNO that uses the network of O2 so their network capacity depends on O2.

It goes without saying that if a mobile operator doesn’t have its base stations at the right places, you won’t get proper cellular coverage. Mobile operators have a large network of macro, micro and small cells throughout towns and cities within a country to provide nationwide coverage. They also have roaming agreements with mobile operators in other countries so that when you travel to those countries, the partners of your mobile operator can keep you connected. Since the whole concept of mobile communications is based on wireless mobility, the mobile operators use radio waves to transmit their signals from base stations to the mobile phones, and then back from mobile phones to the base stations. Mobile operators run their network in a secure way and employ licensed frequencies for the transmission and reception of their mobile signals.

How do mobile network operators work?

Multiple mobile network operators can co-exist in a country and they are all required to get licensed frequency spectrum from a regulatory body in that country. In the UK, the regulatory body that issues the frequency bands to the mobile operators is called Ofcom, but other countries have their own regulatory authorities. The frequency spectrum is a scarce and one of the most precious resources for mobile operators, and they have to use it wisely to make the most of what is available to them. The allocated frequencies are deployed by mobile operators in their radio network to enable mobile communication between the mobile phone and the network.

The components of the mobile network including all the equipment that goes into the radio network, backhaul, core network, operations & maintenance, billing systems, etc. can be purchased from the mobile network vendors. Companies like Ericsson, Huawei, Alcatel-Lucent are some of the examples of the vendors that provide mobile network equipment to MNOs.

If you have read this far, you may be wondering what mobile network operators really do if they are just buying stuff from other companies? Well, the mobile operators are the ones that sit between the customers and the network so they are the ones who understand the customer needs to create propositions, products and services tailored to those needs. They run the mobile network as smoothly as they can to offer connectivity and other inter-related services to their customers. Mobile network operators usually have lots of sales channels including the retail shops that you see almost everywhere. As a customer, it is your choice if you want to become a customer of an MNO or an MVNO. There are benefits of both but good to do your research before getting into a contract.

The size and region of a mobile network operator can also impact how they function. For example, in Europe, many large mobile operators have a Group entity usually in the country of origin (e.g. Deutsche Telekom, 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.). The operating companies are abbreviated as OpCo and depending on the company and the product there are also different levels of collaboration between Group and OpCos to create successful products in the most efficient way. Generally speaking, customers buy their mobile products and services from their local OpCos.

Here are some helpful downloads

Thank you for reading this post, I hope it helped you in developing a better understanding of cellular networks. But sometimes, we need some extra support especially when preparing for a new job, or studying a new topic, or maybe just 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 challenges given 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 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 product overview and product roadmap.

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