MNO, MVNO, MVNA, MVNE: explaining the differences

If you’ve ever wondered exactly what MNO, MVNO, MVNA and MVNE really mean – and the differences between them – you’re not alone. The acronyms can be unclear at times and cause confusion. In this blog we aim to explain the different types of operators – and how they differ from one another.

MNO – Mobile Network Operator       

The MNO is the most commonly visible mobile network operator, responsible for creating the mobile network. MNOs have to purchase/lease the spectrum (a wireless spectrum consists of electromagnetic radiation and frequency bands) from the regulatory body of the country, purchase/lease the network equipment from vendors, then enter into an agreement with handset suppliers and carry out any relevant testing.

MNOs are responsible for the day to day running of the network – and should there be any problems, or if the quality of experience is not as expected, they will receive the fallout. MNOs maintain their own Operation Support Systems (OSS) and Business Support Systems (BSS) – and are responsible for the direct (and at times indirect) billing of Mobile Virtual Network Operator customers.

Examples of well-known MNOs include; EE, Vodafone, O2 and Telefonica.

MVNO – Mobile Virtual Network Operator

An MVNO provides a mobile service to its customers – but does not have an allocation of spectrum. However, it is important to add that an MVNO can own an allocation of spectrum in one region, making it an MNO in that region alone, while operating as an MVNO in another region where it does not own an allocation of spectrum.

This spectrum can be CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access), GSM (Global System for Mobile), UMTS (Universal Mobile Telecommunications System), etc. – not just GSM and spectrum refers to public allocation of spectrum (recently, MVNOs such as British Telecom have acquired allocations of mobile spectrum for use in private spaces, similar to hotspots, but are still MVNOs).

MVNOs generally rely upon the infrastructure (and other services) provided by MNOs. A good example of how MVNOs and MNOs interact is as follows:

  • An MNO may have large amounts of spare capacity that it may be willing to sell at a cheaper price, or on a different rate. The MNO may not want to take this action itself, for fear of diluting the brand. To this end, they may decide to sell messages, voice minutes and data at a much cheaper wholesale price to an MVNO.
  • A fully-fledged MVNO will have its own OSS/BSS software – and be responsible for billing its own customers. However, smaller MVNOs may rely on MNOs to provide usage information for its customers for billing purposes.

MVNOs are often described as being “Full” or “Light”, with variations. However, in simple terms; a Full MVNO has its own HLR, while the Light(er) MVNOs use the HLR of the MNO, whereby it enters the details of its own subscribers. A full MVNO requires heavier investment than a lighter model, but has considerably more power ie it can decide to move to another MNO if not happy with its current service. MVNOs can also refer to themselves as Skinny, Thin or Thick – which are generally perceived to be alternative terms for Light, Full or Branded resellers.

The first generation of MVNOs arrived during an era rife with regulatory concerns and rapid growth in the wireless industry. To this end, they struggled to compete with the same network owners who were selling them capacity.

The second generation, known to many as MVNO 2.0, tried to change the playing field by basing customer relationships on innovative devices such as the iPhone. Many experts now believe that we could be seeing the end of an era for the branded network operator – and that MVNO 3.0 is the next logical step. You can read more about MVNOs on Wikipedia:

Examples of well-known MVNOs include; Virgin Mobile, Lyca Mobile, Walmart mobile.

MVNA – Mobile Virtual Network Aggregator

It often makes little or no sense to have smaller MVNOs connected to the MNO – and to this end,  MNOs may decide to only sell discounted bundles to the “big” players.  MVNAs can aggregate many smaller MVNO’s using their collective power to connect to the operator as a single, larger MVNO. MVNAs do not generally have any direct subscribers, but rather smaller MVNOs connecting to it.

Typically-speaking, an MVNA will have to own OSS/BSS software, for the purpose of providing accurate billing information to the MVNOs. While an MVNO and MVNE will usually try to cater for all potential requirements that come their way, an MVNA will often target a particular market or sector – and will adapt their service to the sector in question.

Examples of well-known MVNOs include; Cognatel, Telecom Service Bureau

MVNE – Mobile Virtual Network Enabler

At times, an MNO may decide to outsource all functionality related to virtual networks to an MVNE, such as SmartIPX. MVNEs offer similar functionality to MVNAs – and can allow MVNAs to connect to the MNO, through itself. In some cases, MVNEs may offer “sell” services directly to customers. MVNEs are described as efficient “enablers” – due to the fact that they enable the creation of smaller MVNOs.

MVNEs offer services such as billing, network element provisioning, administration, operations and support of OSS/BSS to MVNOs. They do not generally have a relationship with end-user customers, but rather focus on the provision of infrastructure and services to enable MVNO’s to effectively offer their services and have a relationship with end-user brand, customer loyalty and marketing.

The first and latest MVNEs had their own mobile network agreement, with the right to resell wholesale airtime to smaller MVNOs. However, a number of MVNEs who emerged around 2006 only offer billing and other infrastructure services required beyond the network to enable MVNOs.

This wider definition of MVNEs is mostly the result of reluctance on behalf of MNOs in many regions to allow anyone the right to resell wholesale mobile network access, with MNOs ultimately having the right of refusal, even to those MVNEs that did have the right to resell.

A trusted operations partner for a wide range of communication service providers globally, SmartIPX work with MNOs, MVNAs and MVNOs, blending their mix of people, expertise and systems to enhance clients network operational capabilities. SmartIPX’s main areas of specialism are Managed Services and White Label NOC Services – although they also offer support for end of life legacy systems on request.

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