A simples guide

A guide to mobile network operators

Ever been in that situation where you need to make a phone call or send a text only to look down at the number of bars of reception you have and then think ahh… (feel free to insert your own expletive). If you live in an area where coverage isn’t great you may feel like you have to stick with the one provider that gives you any vague reception. Of course, that means you’re limited to what tariffs you can choose from, right? Not necessarily and if you want to find out more, read on.


What is a mobile network operator? (MNO)

These are the companies that provide your mobile phone services. They provide all the masts and the network that enable you to send and receive calls, texts and access the internet.

In the UK there are four main network operators: Three, O2, Vodafone and EE (made up of the now defunct T-Mobile and Orange).

mobile phone

What about mobile virtual network operators? (MVNO)

MVNO’s are smaller operators that rent infrastructure of one of the four main network providers – think of it as someone renting a room in a large mansion.
Contrary to how it sounds, mobile virtual network operators (or MVNOs) aren’t some shady network of global conspirators. Like a mobile network operator, they also provide phone services but the difference is, they don’t have their own infrastructure from which to provide them. But, they still want in on the action.

This means that if you subscribe to one of these MVNOs then you’ll get the same coverage as the ‘landlord’ so to speak. This is why it’s often worth knowing who an MVNO is piggybacking services from because if you know you have rubbish reception from one provider then there’s no point signing up with an MVNO who shares their network.

Some of the larger, more well-known MVNOs include the likes of Asda mobile, Tesco mobile and Virgin mobile. We’ve put this table together so you can see who rents space from whom:

Who shares with who?

Some of the larger, more well-known MVNOs include the likes of Asda mobile, Tesco mobile and Virgin mobile. We’ve put this table together so you can see who rents space from whom:

Main Provider MVNO renting space
EE Asda mobile, BT mobile, Co-operative mobile, Post office, Virgin mobile, Airwave smart mobile, Axis mobile, Delight mobile, Life mobile, Natterbox, The people’s operator, Vectone mobile
O2 Giffgaff, Tesco mobile, GT mobile, LycaMobile
Three iD mobile, Shebang, 360 mobile, Abica, Globalgig
Vodafone Talk mobile, Allpay mobile, Cortel telephone, Glemnet, Highnet, Kontakt Mobile, Lebara mobile, Ownphone, Talk talk mobile, Zest4 mobile

Are there any disadvantages to using an MVNO?

In terms of coverage, you’ll get the same service as customers who buy their phone services direct from the big four networks, so there shouldn’t be too much to grumble about. The only area where you might be at a disadvantage is that you won’t qualify for any of the main network’s freebies and rewards – only those directly contracted to the big four will get these perks. So you may buy services off Tesco mobile (who in turn buy coverage from O2) but that doesn’t mean you’ll get any of the O2 Priority benefits like buying gig tickets before they officially go on sale.

Also, some MVNOs won’t provide the newest and fastest network for mobile internet – 4G, even if it’s renting space from a main network that provides it.

What do all the Gs mean?

You may have heard of 2G, 3G and 4G, but what does it all mean?
• 2G – this is the backbone of mobile phone infrastructure, it supports calls, texts and gives you very low speed internet connections – the sort where buffering of videos takes so long you lose the will to live.
• 3G – this supports calls, texts and internet use from your phone, most handsets nowadays are supported by 3G and where they’re not, they’ll automatically try to connect to 2G.
• 4G – this is the newest infrastructure and promises super-duper mobile internet speeds (up to seven times faster than 3G). Because it’s so new, not all handsets are compatible with 4G speeds but providers are upgrading their offering continuously.

Is there a best large carrier?

If it were a competition, it’d be hard to judge, each one offers different things and it depends on what you need or what you expect, but here’s a rundown of the big guns:

• Three – they were the first to introduce 3G and offer 4G to customers at no extra cost (they’re also the provider least likely to be complained about). Three also has 3G coverage across 98% of the UK.
• O2 – they offer a huge number of rewards and benefits such as vouchers for high street stores and restaurants; they also sell gig tickets before they go on general release. They have 2G coverage across 99% of the country and 3G coverage of 80%.
• EE – offer 4G across more than 95% of the country and were the first to introduce even faster 4G (4GEE and 4G+). They also offer a number of perks such as discounts on film streaming, music, theatre and comedy tickets.
• Vodafone – covers over 99% of the population with its 2G signal and has 80% coverage with 3G. Vodafone are the second biggest mobile phone company in the world (China mobile is number one) so they know a thing or two about mobiles. They also offer free (time limited) access to music streaming sites such as Spotify and TV channels that you usually have to pay for (such as Sky Atlantic).

How do I compare deals?

Well this is the bit that (hopefully) doesn’t need any explanation. We’re all for giving you choice and comparison so even if you’re just a little bit curious about what deal you could get, why not start using our mobile comparison service today?