What's An MVNO?

What does MVNO mean?  It stands for "Mobile Virtual Network Operator."  And why is this a topic of interest?  Well, this is a very misunderstood term, however, it is key to having a good understanding of the wireless industry as there are literally hundreds that have come and gone over the years.

Mobile Virtual Network Operator

MVNOs are wireless companies that don't own their own network.  Building and maintaining a wireless network (i.e. towers, switches, etc.) is EXTREMELY expensive.  It takes armies of network engineers and IT resources, not to mention billions of dollars to buy spectrum and to build and maintain wireless networks.  So, a lot of small wireless companies buy wireless minutes at a wholesale price from larger carriers (ex. AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile, etc.).  In other words, these smaller companies pay for each minute (or KB/MB of data) their customers use at a discounted rate.  This allows them to focus their resources on building their brand and basic business operations, rather than spending time raising capital and spending years building their own wireless network.  These companies essentially become marketers of a new brand.

MVNOs, however, have a very difficult time competing with the large carriers that own their own network.  This is because although they buy minutes at a wholesale price, the cost is still quite expensive compared to the carrier that owns the network.  The interesting thing, that you may have already uncovered, is that large wireless carriers are actually selling minutes to MVNOs that are essentially their competition!  They do typically try to sell minutes only to companies that aren't competing in the same space or targeting the same demographic.  That said, at some level, all wireless companies are competing in the same marketplace, and it's nearly impossible not to overlap demographics.

Some good examples of current and past Mobile Virtual Network Operators:
  • Google Project Fi (T-Mobile & Sprint) 
  • Jump Mobile (Cricket) (bankrupt)
  • Helio (purchased by Virgin & discontinued) (Sprint)
  • Mobile ESPN (Sprint) (bankrupt)
  • i-wireless (Sprint)
  • Page Plus Cellular (Verizon)
  • Ready Mobile (Sprint)
  • Trumpet Mobile (Sprint) (bankrupt)
  • Simple Mobile (T-Mobile)
  • Disney Mobile (Sprint) (bankrupt)
  • Amp'd Mobile (Verizon) (bankrupt)
  • Cox (Sprint) (bankrupt)
  • GIV Mobile (T-Mobile) (bankrupt)
  • PrepaYd Wireless (Sprint) bankrupt)
  • PTel Mobile (T-Mobile) (bankrupt)
  • Solavei (T-Mobile) (bankrupt)
  • Cellular Abroad (T-Mobile)
  • Kajeet (Sprint)
  • Krew Mobile (T-Mobile)
  • NetZero (Sprint)
  • Virgin Mobile USA (discontinued being an MVNO upon its purchased by Sprint)
These companies own and operate every other part of their business, such as Marketing, Finance, HR, Product Development, Customer Care, etc.  This gives them full control over their end-to-end business.  They simply don't have to worry about maintaining the physical wireless towers, managing voice and data capacity, etc.

You'll also note that many of those listed above are no longer in business.  Amongst a number of factors, one key element of their failure has to do with the fact that it's very expensive to operate as a Mobile Virtual Network Operator.  The trade off of all that control is the high cost that they pay per minute to the large wireless carriers.  It's also interesting to note that prior to its acquisition by Sprint, Virgin Mobile USA never made even a dollar of profit since launching!  Since their IPO (Initial Public Offering) in 2007, and Virgin Mobile USA's books were available to the public, this fact became visible to the public, as well as to angry investors.  Their inability to operate profitably was a major contributing factor to Sprint's purchase of their U.S. operations.

You may have noticed that Boost Mobile is not in the list above.  Of course, the list is not even close to being a comprehensive, however, no matter how many would be included, Boost Mobile would not be part of the list.  Why not?  Well, Boost is actually not an Mobile Virtual Network Operator, and never has been.  People who continue to refer to them as such simply they don't know what they're talking about.

Seriously though, Boost is not an MVNO because they are a fully own subsidiary of Sprint Corporation.  Boost is simply another division, or brand, within the company, similar to how Cricket is a subsidiary of AT&T.  Sprint  has full ownership over the profits (or losses) of the Boost business.  Also, Boost shares the same IT, engineering, HR, and other departments with the parent company.  In addition, Boost does not pay a per minute wholesale cost.  This gives Boost a much greater advantage over MVNOs because its cost structure is so much lower.

It's certainly not uncommon for people to lump Boost into this category, however, those that do either don't understand what an MVNO is, or they are not fully aware of the structure of the Boost business.  Please don't get me wrong, this is a very confusing and often misunderstood topic, so it's very easy to gloss over some of the details, and many may not be interested in calling out the unique elements of companies like Boost.  It should also be noted that now that Sprint owns Virgin, Virgin is no longer an MVNO.

What's An MVNO?

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