Mobile virtual network operator
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A mobile virtual network operator (MVNO), virtual network operator (VNO), or mobile other licensed operator (MOLO), is a wireless communications services provider that does not own the wireless network infrastructure over which it provides services to its customers. An MVNO enters into a business agreement with a mobile network operator to obtain bulk access to network services at wholesale rates, then sets retail prices independently. An MVNO may use its own customer service, billing support systems, marketing, and sales personnel, or it could employ the services of a mobile virtual network enabler (MVNE).
MVNO agreements with network operators date back to the 1990s, when the European telecom market saw market liberalization, new regulatory frameworks, better 2G network technology, and a subsequent jump in wireless subscriber numbers. Though the new 2G networks more efficiently managed the limited frequency bands allocated to wireless service, new mobile entrants were still limited by their ability to access frequency bands in a restricted spectrum.
With European markets newly open to competition and new technology enabling better service and cheaper handsets, there was a massive surge in demand for cellular phones. In the midst of this swell, Sense Communications fought for access to mobile network operator (MNO) spectrum in Scandinavia in 1997. Sense was able to establish an MVNO agreement with Sonera in Finland, but it failed to persuade MNOs in Sweden, Denmark, and Norway. Sense then appealed to EU regulators, citing provisions that required certain MNOs to allow new entrants interconnection. While Sense's claim was denied, in November 1999, the company signed a service provider agreement with Telia/Telenor Mobile for GSM network capacity access, allowing Sense to offer services to its own customers in Sweden and Norway.
Despite Sense's initial failure, the regulator in Denmark saw the promise in the MVNO model as a cost-effective route for telecom companies to enter the market and in May 2000, legislation passed that required network operators with significant market power to open up access to their infrastructure. By August of that same year, the MNO SONOFON had solidified the first viable MVNO agreement with Tele2. This agreement provided Tele2 with access to SONOFON's network for both mobile and roaming services, the latter of which had been requested by (and denied to) Sense Communications. With the new regulations in place, MVNOs in Scandinavia eventually grew to a market share of above 10%.
By 2008, US wireless subscribers had a choice between around 40 MVNOs. According to the FCC, approximately 7 percent of all U.S. mobile subscribers were served by resellers, including MVNOs, and analysts find that the 15.1 million wireless subscribers served by resellers by the end of 2006 has increased by 1.6 million over the previous year.
MVNOs are distinguished by their commitment to owning and managing the operational components of the MVNO business model, consisting of:
- Access to basic network infrastructure, like base stations, transceivers, home location registers, or switching centres.
- Service packaging, pricing, and billing systems, including value-added services like voicemail or missed call notifications.
- Consumer-facing aspects like sales, marketing, and customer relationship management activities like customer care or dispute resolution.
Because MVNOs are effectively defined by their lack of spectrum licenses, an MVNO necessarily will need to have agreements in place to access the network of at least one MNO. The type of MVNO is determined by how "thick" or "thin" of a technological layer an MVNO adds over its access to its host MNO's network.
Sometimes referred to as a "Skinny MVNO", as the reseller almost totally relies on the MNO's facilities. They do not own any network elements, but may own and operate their own customer care, marketing, and sales operations.
Sometimes referred to as a "Light MVNO". The service provider operates its own customer support, marketing, sales and distribution operations, and has the ability to set its tariffs independently from the retail prices set by the MNO.
Enhanced Service Provider
Sometimes referred to as a "Thick MVNO". The MVNO manages a more complete technical implementations with its own infrastructure which allows the MVNO more control over its offerings. These MVNOs have a heavier focus on branding, customer-ownership, and differentiation through added services like data and SIM applications.
These MVNOs have a network implementation operating essentially the same technology as a mobile network operator. Full MVNOs only lack their own radio networks.
Around the world
As of June 2014, 943 MVNOs and 255 MNO sub-brands were active worldwide. This represents a total of almost 1,200 mobile service providers worldwide hosted by MNOs, up from 1,036 in 2012,
According to GSMA Intelligence, between June 2010 and June 2015, the number of MVNOs worldwide increased by 70 percent, reaching 1,017 in June 2015. The report further noted that the 10 countries with the largest number of MVNOs in June 2015, was Germany with 129 MVNOs, the U.S. with 108, the UK 76, the Netherlands 56, France 49, Australia 43, Denmark 43, Spain 35, Poland 27, and Belgium with 26. Japan replaces Poland with 23 MVNOs, when strictly speaking in terms of developed countries.
In addition to traditional cellular voice and messaging services, in 2014, 120 MVNOs also were offering mobile broadband services. In Africa, Uganda has registered three MVNOs so far, some having their own network infrastructure within major cities, but acting as an MVNO out of these cities.
MVNOs target both the consumer and enterprise markets. The majority of MVNOs are consumer-focused and most have a focus on price as their selling point; on average, customers of major carriers spend about 3.4 times as much money on their service as MVNO customers.
Large Global MVNOs
There are about 300 MVNOs operating in the U.S., which are estimated to hold about 1 in 10 wireless subscriptions—36 million customers in all. That number has roughly doubled since 2009, thanks to a trend of the larger providers allowing customers to more easily switch networks, and a significant decrease in the cost of wholesale network capacity rates. MVNOs have tended to receive better customer service marks in the U.S. than the big carriers, with Consumer Cellular, Ting, and Republic Wireless topping the Consumer Reports industry customer service satisfaction rankings.
To better compete with MVNOs, which tend to offer service at lower rates than the major US wireless networks directly, some large American carriers also market wireless service using their own captive MVNOs or alternative brands such as Boost Mobile (Sprint), Cricket Wireless (AT&T) and MetroPCS (T-Mobile US). Other notable MVNOs offering lower rates are Lycamobile, ChatSIM, US Mobile, RedPocket and TracFone. 
In 2003, the European Commission issued a recommendation to national telecom regulators to examine the competitiveness of the market for wholesale access and call origination on public mobile telephone networks. The study resulted in new regulations from regulators in several countries, including Ireland and France forcing operators to open up their networks to MVNOs.
The Saudi government is making preparations to permit MVNO services in the country.
In Thailand, five MVNOs were given a Type II license to operate on the 2100 MHz 3G network of state telecom service TOT Public Company Limited (TOT) in 2009. As of December 2014, three of the original five MVNOs are still in service.
In India, the Telecom Department under the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology, accepted a recommendation from the national telecom regulator, Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, to permit VNOs in the country, and announced the grant of a unified license for Virtual Network Operators on 31 May 2016. VNOs have formed an association to represent current regulatory issues impacting their MVNO business viability.
- Competitive local exchange carrier (CLEC)
- List of Europe MNOs
- List of United Kingdom MVNOs
- List of United States MVNOs
- Virtual Network Operator (VNO)
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