Do MVNOs offer the same service as a major network?

When you choose a MVNO over a main network you don't receive the exact same service. This articles explains the differences.
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A lot of websites say things like “this MVNO uses X network so you get the exact same service at a lower price”. This is not true. While you should get similar coverage to the main network, you don’t necessarily receive the same speeds, availability or extra features.

What is a MVNO?

There are four mobile network providers in the United Kingdom: EE, O2, Vodafone and 3. They all provide their services to at least one MVNO. Giffgaff, for example, uses the O2 mobile network to provide its services. MVNO means Mobile Virtual Network Operator. MVNOs, also known as virtual networks, provide telecommunications services but don’t own or run their own network.

Same network same service, right?

Sorry, wrong. There are some obvious differences like Customer perks and the monthly fees, but there can be deeper differences that affect the very service you receive.

A MVNO does now have unlimited access to all the resources of their parent network. They receive a set amount of “bandwidth” or space in parent pipe for data and calls. As a result the speeds and latency (response time) on a MVNO may not be the same as the main network.

What is the same?

  • Coverage / availability throughout the UK. If the parent network works in a specific location then a MVNO on the same network should as well.

What could be different?

  • Data speed
  • Data caps
  • Data throttling based on amount of data used
  • Worldwide and European Roaming Agreements
  • 3G / 4G / 5G availability
  • Access to certain closed networks like government institutions
  • Payment methods – where and how you can pay for your service plan
  • Adult content protection
  • Voicemail services and charges

But I keep reading things like “they use x network so you get the same great service”

We see that too – it’s wrong. MVNOs do offer a great service, but it isn’t the same as their parent network.

Does this ever have a practical impact?

Yes, it can make a real difference. For example, for over a year customers of a very well known MVNO couldn’t call a lot of phone numbers from NHS institutions, including large hospitals. While their parent network was unaffected, part of the MVNO had been set up incorrectly without anyone noticing.

On the flip side, MVNOs may not have some of the limits like connection throttling or fair use policies. You may find that a MVNO has more freedom  to do certain things than the main network.

In a nutshell

You’ll usually get lower monthly fees by moving or switching to an MVNO. MVNOs have little or no retail infrastructure and sell their plans online, or only in a few stores so their modest overheads mean the customer benefits.

Using an MVNO can have some drawbacks. First, you do not receive all the value added benefits, like movie passes or VIP event access. You also lose the opportunity to save with “Triple” or “Quad Play” deals that give you a cheaper rate for using the same provider for Mobile, Boadband, Home phone and / or TV services.

One last question to ask yourself is if you will ever need the support offered by a local mobile phone store and their in store experts. Most people nowadays can set-up and manage their phones themselves, but if you do need some extra help then a high street store may be helpful.