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Cheaper and more flexible data plans: are MVNOs right for you?

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You’ve probably heard of the “Big Four” cell phone carriers: Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile. But increasingly, they’re not the only players in town.

There are dozens of smaller, often prepaid, carriers — called mobile virtual network operators — that offer alternatives. And that’s good news for consumers, because MVNOs can provide cheaper, more flexible mobile plans than the Big Four.

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An MVNO primer

MVNOs are small carriers that lease cellular coverage and data bandwidth from — or share it with — a member of the Big Four, then resell it to customers. Hence the “virtual network” part of the name: MVNOs don’t own any actual hardware. The Big Four own and operate it.

Sometimes these MVNOs are wholly owned by the bigger carriers; for example, AT&T owns Cricket Wireless and allows it to operate on the AT&T network. Other MVNOs are independent entities, like Republic Wireless or Consumer Cellular, that lease space on someone else’s network.

You’ll see Sprint‘s name pop up in a lot of these agreements, as it has been relatively friendly to MVNOs compared to other big carriers. It has a history of selling data at wholesale rates — as Gigaom reported in 2012, when MVNOs were newly resurgent — and, thanks to its weak market position relative to AT&T and Verizon, it has an interest in cultivating any competitive advantage it can.

Some caveats

Since they’re taking up some of the bigger networks’ finite bandwidth, MVNO users sometimes receive lesser priority than name-brand customers. For example, Cricket Wireless LTE data speeds are capped at 8Mbps, whereas AT&T customers can enjoy LTE data speeds of more than 20Mbps, depending on the location.

This isn’t always the case, but double-check before you sign up so you know exactly the service you’ll receive. And make sure the phone selection is to your liking, as some MVNOs offer limited choices.

Is an MVNO right for you?

MVNOs may have some restrictions, but they also come with greater flexibility and often cheaper costs. Some, such as Republic Wireless and Google’s Project Fi, are pioneering an attractively simple pricing option in which customers essentially pay for data as they go at one flat rate. Plus, most MVNOs operate with no-contract prepaid billing, meaning no credit checks.

If saving money is a higher priority for you than having the highest data speeds, or if you prefer not to sign a long-term contract, MVNOs are worth checking out.

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List of major MVNOs

Here’s a list of some of the larger MVNOs, their owners when applicable, their network coverage partners, and some information to help you pick the best one for you. U.S. Cellular is an odd one here as it operates its own network — the fifth-largest — but partners with a semi-obscure broadband company called King Street Wireless for its LTE coverage.

Carrier Owned By Network Coverage Provider Nerd Tips
U.S. Cellular N/A King Street Wireless U.S. Cellular is the fifth-largest carrier behind the Big Four. It offers postpaid and prepaid plans.
Cricket Wireless AT&T AT&T Cricket is among the best prepaid options overall and also offers a great prepaid family plan.
Virgin Mobile Sprint Sprint Virgin Mobile provides great prepaid options, with some of the cheapest plans on the market and unlimited music-streaming features.
Boost Mobile Sprint Sprint Boost is a great option for parents looking for a prepaid family plan.
MetroPCS T-Mobile T-Mobile MetroPCS offers some nice features at a decent price, but other carriers, like Virgin and Boost, do the same for less money.
Tracfone America Móvil Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint Tracfone charges reasonable prices, but lacks many of the features other prepaid carriers provide.
Straight Talk Tracfone Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint Straight Talk is a subsidiary of Tracfone, and also has low prices — but you'll get what you pay for when it comes to features.
Net10 Tracfone Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint Net10 is also a subsidiary of Tracfone.
Project Fi Google Sprint, T-Mobile and U.S. Cellular Project Fi charges customers only for the data they actually use, at a flat rate. It offers limited phone selection.
GreatCall N/A Verizon GreatCall's phone plans are specifically geared toward seniors.
Consumer Cellular N/A AT&T Consumer Cellular received the highest overall customer satisfaction rating among postpaid carriers in a 2015 Consumer Reports survey.
Republic Wireless N/A Sprint Republic Wireless has a pay-as-you-go flat data rate scheme similar to Project Fi's and a soon-to-be-expanded phone selection.

Stephen Layton is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: slayton@nerdwallet.com.

This article first appeared at NerdWallet.


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