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Mobile network operators: a simple guide

Mobile network operators: a simple guide

If you live in an area where mobile phone coverage isn’t great, you may be frustrated with your mobile network provider. So, it’s always good to look around at the other providers, both big and small, to check coverage in your area and tariffs to suit your budget.

Holly Niblett
From the Digital team
minute read
posted 26 NOVEMBER 2019

What’s a mobile network operator? (MNO)

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

In the UK there are four main network operators:

MNO 4G Coverage (% of UK population)
Three 91%
O2 97%
Vodafone 95%
EE 99%

What’s a mobile virtual network operator? (MVNO)

MVNOs are smaller operators that rent infrastructure, buy space from or piggyback one of the four main network providers.

This means that if you subscribe to one of these MVNOs, then you’ll get the same coverage as the main operator.

It’s often worth knowing who the MVNO is piggybacking services from. If you know you’ve a bad signal or data speeds from one provider, then there’s no point signing up with an MVNO who shares their network.

Which MVNOs share with which mobile network operators?

We’ve created this table, so you can see who rents space from which provider:

Main provider MVNO renting space
EE Major players:  
  • ASDA Mobile
  • BT Mobile
  • The Phone Coop
  • Virgin Mobile
  • Axis Mobile
  • Delight Mobile
  • Natterbox
  • Plusnet Mobile
  • Vectone Mobile
O2 Major players:  
  • Giffgaff
  • Tesco Mobile
  • Sky Mobile  
  • LycaMobile
  • TalkTalk Mobile
Three Major players:  
  • iD Mobile  
  • The People's Operator
  • Globalgig
Vodafone Major players:  
  • Talk Mobile  
  • Cortel Telephone
  • Glemnet
  • Highnet
  • Lebara Mobile
  • Ownfone
  • Zest4 Mobile

Are there any disadvantages to using a smaller mobile network operator?

Not really. In terms of coverage and data speeds, 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 main area where you might be at a disadvantage when using a smaller provider 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.

What about customer service between the mobile network providers?

Ofgem runs reports on the main aspects of mobile providers’ services and for 2018 EE performed well for coverage, data speeds and what extras it offers its customers directly.

For customer service though, things were pretty even across the board – which is great news for all mobile phone users. The big four providers appear to provide a consistent level of customer service and Tesco Mobile came out best for the MVNO provider group

How do I compare deals?

Now you know more about who’s really providing your broadband signal you might want to compare mobile phone deals. 

To compare deals, have an idea of what you are looking for in a price plan – how many calls you make, texts you send or how much data you would likely use – all to make sure that the best-fit price plan can be found for you.

Use our mobile comparison service today to get a quick list of results. 

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