When it comes to cell phone plans, you obviously know the big four: AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint. But you may have also noticed other, smaller companies like Cricket Wireless, Boost Mobile or Ting. Through the help of an alternate business model, these scrappy little alternative providers that can provide big upsides, though not without a few caveats. Here’s what you need to know.
The technical trick that makes these plans possible
The main thing to know about these companies — technically known as Mobile Virtual Network Operators, or MNVOs — is that yes, they can save you a substantial amount of cash over time. The clue as to why is in the “V” of their name: they don’t own a network of antennas and other expensive physical infrastructure — they are virtual networks that run on the same physical backbone as the big four.
That keeps costs down, as does the lack of other overheads like retail stores—most MVNOs operate a streamlined online operation. That then translates to more money in your pocket, which is why you’ll often see some very appealing rates from these virtual operators.
You’ll get more than just a discount.
Lower prices are the big draw of MVNOs, but not the only one. Some MVNOs sign deals with multiple carriers, which means your SIM card can hop between networks depending on where the signal is strongest. If you’re experiencing a dead zone or an unstable connection on Verizon, for example, your MVNO-enabled phone might be able to jump over to AT&T instead, or vice versa.
As smaller companies, MVNOs are often more flexible and friendly too. They have more of a startup feel than the big name carriers, which are more weighed down with years of history, huge numbers of staff, and all kinds of different side businesses and operations. Also, owing to the more competitive atmosphere, they tend to be a bit more hungry to get and hold onto your business, but don’t expect them to cut you sweetheart deals with their thin margins.
Plans from MVNOs often offer a lot of choice in terms of the devices you can use and the length of time you need to sign up for, though this varies between providers. You can tailor your plan to suit you—what your budget is, how much data you’re going to need each month, how long you want to sign up for, whether you want to keep your existing device, and so on. Many MVNOs couple modern necessities like high-speed data with more old-fashioned “pay what you use” billing instead of blanket contracts, which means you have to predict your usage accurately if you want to come in under budget, but can modify your usage to save some coin.
Last but not least, the sign up process is often more straightforward with an MVNO, and can often be done with a lower credit rating, because there are fewer strings attached. This is in part because you’ll often be bringing your own phone to the table, which is where we start getting into the complications.
But it’s not all upside.
MVNOs are smaller than the main carriers, and that gives them less clout when it comes to making deals with phone makers. You probably won’t get the same choice (or any choice) of handsets with an MVNO, so it often makes most sense to buy a new phone outright, direct from a manufaturer (or use one you already have) than to expect to bundle one with your plan. Ultimately, this usually winds up being cheaper, but it is a little more complicated, and there is some room for error, so choose wisely and make sure you phone will work on the service you want.
Then there’s the speed issue: while the major carriers are happy to do deals with MVNOs (money is money after all), you won’t necessarily get the top tier speeds or coverage, as the carrier is going to look after its own customers first. Sometimes you’ll see limits on download speeds as part of your deal, so be sure to check the fine print.
When new technology like 5G gets rolled out, MVNOs aren’t usually the first in the queue to get it. The big names in cellular networks are the ones investing in the infrastructure, and they want to be the ones to get the most benefit (and the most customers) from it. Sometimes you have to be patient when it comes to MVNOs catching up.
Cutting down on the extra bells and whistles means MVNOs can offer lower prices, but sometimes you’ll want those extra bells and whistles—that might mean streaming products bundled with your contract, for example, or special offers, or the opportunity to sign up for a family plan that you can use to look after the kids as well. Don’t just assume that a lower-priced package is automatically better for you.
Customer support can sometimes be patchy with these third-party MVNOs as well, with trimmed down operations meaning fewer staff to help out if something goes wrong. Cellular service customer support leaves a lot to be desired right across the board though, MVNO or no.
Which plan is right for you?
Not all MVNOs and MVNO packages are created equal, so it’s important to do plenty of research. In particular, shop around for different types of package, and don’t assume all MVNOs will offer the same sorts of deals: some will focus on data, others will let you prepay a long way in advance, and so on. Here are a few of the major players and their main gimmicks:
Ting uses a combination of Sprint and T-Mobile’s network and doesn’t offer pre-made plans, but rather lets you build your own with its rate calculator. This lets you completely avoid paying for minutes and texts (or even data!) if you don’t use it, but at the cost of a relatively high $10/GB price for data usage above 2GB a month.
Boost Mobile uses the Sprint network, and has plans starting at $35/month for 3GB of 4G LTE, and $50 a month for unlimited plans, all of which come with the fairly rare ability to use your phone as a hotspot and six free months of Tidal. Though if you live in an area where Sprint is spotty, that won’t do you a lot of good.
Cricket Mobile uses AT&T’s robust network and currently offers a rock-bottom $30/month plan for 2GB of data, unlimited calls and unlimited texting. There’s also a $55/month “Unlimited” plan, but throttling will kick in if you get all the way up to the 22GB range. It also offers a $5 credit to your bill if you enable autopay.
Straight Talk uses a combination of all four major networks (though your phone itself may not support them all). Its baseline “Unlimited” plan runs just $45/month, though only the first 25GB of that data is unthrottled, which explains the low price.