Mobile network operator logos

What is an MNO?

What is an MNO?

MNO stands for Mobile Network Operator. MNOs are telecom providers that offer voice, text (SMS) and data services to their subscribed customers. Most people refer to them simply as mobile networks or mobile carriers.

Mobile network operators build and maintain the entire infrastructure allowing you to make calls, send texts and access the web when you’re out and about. 

Mobile base station owned by MNO
Mobile base station owned and operated by an MNO

They are responsible for the installation of base stations, and all the hardware and software that’s needed for the service to work.

There are around 1,400 MNOs globally.

Which is the largest MNO?

China Mobile is the largest MNO with 974 million subscribers. Here is a table showing the top 10 MNOs globally.

MNO name

Number of subscribers

China Mobile Coomunications


Bharti Airtel Limited


Reliance Jio Infocomm Limited


China Telecom Corp., Ltd


China Unicom Limited


América Móvil, S.A.B. de C.V


Telefónica S.A.


MTN Group Limited


Vodafone Group plc


Vodafone Idea Ltd


What is an MVNO?

MVNO stands for mobile virtual network operator. An MVNO is a mobile network provider that doesn’t own the network infrastructure. So they don’t install their own base stations or other hardware.

MVNOs enter into a commercial agreement to gain access to the mobile network’s service at wholesale or bulk prices. They then resell the service to consumers under their own brand.

MVNO logos

Customers of MVNOs use exactly the same service as the mobile network operator just under a different brand.

MVNOs usually have their own marketing, sales and admin departments but sometime these functions are contracted out to other companies.

In the UK, Tesco Mobile and Lebara Mobile are examples of MVNOs. Tesco uses O2’s network and Lebara Mobile uses Vodafone.

Globally, there are around 1200 MVNOs and account for about 10% of all mobile subscribers.

Why do people choose an MVNO as their mobile network?

The main reason consumers use MVNOs is cost. MVNOs are almost always much cheaper than their parent network.

Consumers can save on the cost of the mobile handset as well as the monthly fees.

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Henry Cazalet Managing Director
Co-founder and Director of The SMS Works, a low cost and powerful SMS API for developers. About Henry