There are 4 main mobile networks in the UK — O2, Three, Vodafone and EE. These networks look after all the infrastructure needed to provide mobile coverage. This includes things like mobile phone masts and the necessary licenses. These licenses are hugely expensive. For example, EE paid the Government over £588 Million to run a 4G network in 2013
Of course, in the UK there are a lot more than 4 mobile phone networks. GiffGaff, Sky Mobile and ID Mobile are just 3 names that you might have heard of. These companies are called "Mobile virtual network operators" or (MVNOs). These main networks — O2, Vodafone etc — allow these smaller, companies to use some of their capacity in order to operate a mobile network. If we take GiffGaff for example - they pay O2 in order to use their network. The call or text message goes over the O2 network, using O2 masts and the O2 license. GiffGaff look after things like the bills or customer service. It might seem strange that the cheapest deals don't come from the 4 main networks. After all, these MVNOs need to pay their host for the use of the network, so they should be more expensive, right?
Sometimes the main network might actually own the MVNO that is using their network. This way, they can run 2 separate brands, each targeting different people. O2 own GiffGaff, and pitch it towards younger people. They are able to offer lower prices on the GiffGaff network, to people who are price savvy enough to switch, while keeping their core O2 prices higher.
When you understand that you're not going to get less coverage, or a poorer signal if you switch away from one of the 4 main networks, you can save a lot of money on your mobile phone contract.
Which network does the MVNO operate on?
According to Wikipedia, the UK had 77 active MVNOs as of December 2018. The combined network share of these 77 networks was 23% of all UK mobile phone subscribers. That means that a lot of people are still paying high rates from the 4 main networks!
MVNO Changing Networks
The table above shows the current (Feb. 2019) state of affairs with regards to some of the MVNOs in the UK. But, sometimes these companies have jumped from one network to another. This can lead to a change in the coverage that they offer, and might even mean that you need to Unlock your iPhone in order to stay on that network.
- ASDA Mobile: Before October 2013, ASDA Mobile used the Vodafone network, but in that month they swapped to using EE. Then in 2021, they switched back to Vodafone.
- BT Mobile: BT Mobile used to be a business-only network. This ran on Vodafone. They stopped that in the Summer of 2014, and for nearly a year there wasn't any BT mobile network. Then, in March 2015 they launched a consumer network. This runs on EE.
- Delight Mobile: From July 2011 to July 2018, Delight Mobile offered coverage from EE. In July 2018, the service closed down with customers being transferred to Vectone Mobile.
- Family Mobile: Family Mobile (originally from IKEA and then from Coms Mobile) previously used coverage from EE. The service closed in August 2015.
- LIFE Mobile: In November 2016, customers on LIFE Mobile transitioned to Plusnet Mobile. Customers who originally signed up for a LIFE Mobile plan were moved over to the Plusnet Mobile service.
- Lycamobile: In 2010, Lycamobile switched to using the O2 network. Prior to this, Lycamobile used the Orange network.
- Mobile by Sainsbury’s: From July 2013 to January 2016, Sainsbury’s had an own-brand mobile network using coverage from Vodafone.
- Orange & T-Mobile: In October 2011, Orange and T-Mobile merged their network operations under the EE brand. The combined networks of Orange and T-Mobile became the 2G and 3G network of EE. In addition, EE launched a 4G network under their own brand but this wasn’t made available to customers on Orange or T-Mobile. In February 2015, Orange and T-Mobile closed their service to new customers.
- OVIVO Mobile: OVIVO Mobile previously used coverage from Vodafone. The service closed on March 19th 2014. Post Office Mobile. The Post Office Mobile previously used coverage from EE. The service was closed in August 2016.
- TalkTalk Mobile: TalkTalk Mobile previously used coverage from Vodafone. The service was closed to new customers in April 2017. Customers of TalkTalk home broadband are now offered a discounted contract from O2.
- Tello: Tello previously used coverage from Three. The service was closed in January 2018.
- TPO Mobile: In July 2016, TPO Mobile (The People’s Operator) changed their network coverage provider from EE to Three.