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What is MVNO (Mobile Virtual Network Operator)

A Mobile Virtual Network Operator (MVNO) is a wireless communications service provider that does not own the network infrastructure it uses to provide services to customers. Instead, an MVNO enters into an agreement with a mobile network operator (MNO) to obtain bulk access to network services at wholesale rates, then sets its own retail prices independently.

What is MVNO

How MVNOs Operate

MVNOs purchase network access from MNOs, then package and market mobile services under their own brand. They may use their own customer service, billing systems, marketing, and sales staff, or contract through a mobile virtual network enabler (MVNE).

The type of MVNO is determined by how much of the network infrastructure and technical implementation they manage:

  • Branded Reseller (or “Skinny MVNO”): Relies almost entirely on the MNO’s facilities, only owning customer-facing operations.
  • Service Provider (or “Light MVNO”): Operates its own customer support, marketing, sales, and distribution, with some ability to set tariffs.
  • Enhanced Service Provider (or “Thick MVNO”): Manages more of the technical infrastructure, allowing greater control over service offerings and branding.
  • Full MVNO: Operates essentially the same technology as an MNO, only lacking radio network ownership.

History and Growth

MVNO agreements date back to the 1990s in Europe, spurred by market liberalization, new regulations, and 2G network technology improvements. As of 2024, there are over 1,300 active MVNOs operating in 80 countries worldwide, representing more than 220 million mobile connections.

Some notable markets include:

  • United States: 139 MVNOs (4.7% market share)
  • Germany: 135 MVNOs (19.5% market share)
  • Japan: 83 MVNOs (10.6% market share)
  • United Kingdom: 77 MVNOs (15.9% market share)

MVNOs typically target niche consumer segments with value-focused offerings. On average, MVNO customers spend about 30% of what customers of major MNOs spend on mobile services.

Regulation and Challenges

Telecom regulators in many countries have introduced rules to encourage MVNO competition, such as requiring MNOs with significant market power to open network access. However, MVNO success still heavily depends on favorable wholesale agreements and the ability to differentiate services.

As 5G networks roll out, it remains to be seen how MVNO business models will adapt to new technology and market dynamics. Still, with their focus on lean operations and niche segments, MVNOs are likely to remain key players in the mobile services landscape.

In summary, an MVNO (Mobile Virtual Network Operator) is a mobile services provider that uses existing network infrastructure to offer its own branded services. By targeting specific market segments, MVNOs can provide value and expand consumer choice without the expense of building their own networks.

Lila Bennett

Lila Bennett

Lila Bennett, with 10+ years in eSIM tech, specializes in mobile connectivity solutions. She offers end-to-end eSIM services, from setup to support, for both businesses and consumers. Need eSIM integration or advice? Contact Lila anytime for expert assistance.