What is an MVNO and how can it save you money?

There are plenty of great deals to be had outside the "big three" telcos.

What you need to know

  • MVNOs are telcos that use the Telstra, Optus and Vodafone networks instead of building their own.
  • They're often cheaper and typically require no long-term commitment.
  • Optus and Vodafone MVNOs provide full access to their respective mobile networks, but most Telstra MVNOs are limited to parts of the Telstra mobile network.

Finder's favourite MVNO plan

Why we like it

Boost Mobile is one of the only MVNOs that offers full access to the Telstra 3G and 4G networks, and its 30GB prepaid plan is among its most attractive offerings. It packs plenty of data along with unlimited international calls to 25 countries, plus any data you don't use automatically rolls over to the next month.


What is an MVNO?

MVNO stands for Mobile Virtual Network Operator. If you unpack those words individually, the concept of an MVNO becomes clear. They're mobile operators, much the same as Telstra, Optus and Vodafone. However, instead of operating full mobile networks with signalling towers, repeaters and everything else that makes up the hardware of a mobile network, they lease space on existing mobile networks from the big three telcos. Hence, they're "virtual" mobile network operators.

MVNOs tend to focus on prepaid and month-to-month mobile plans. This makes them better-suited to price-conscious phone users who don't need a lot of extra features. Folks who want more bang for their buck won't go wanting either, as there are plenty of MVNOs that offer postpaid plans in both month-to-month and 12- or 24-month flavours.


Compare MVNO plans

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Pros and cons of MVNOs

Pros

  • Lower costs. The business model for an MVNO relies on lower overall operating costs since there's no need to pay for spectrum access rights, mobile tower maintenance or development of newer network technologies. These savings can then be passed onto the customer.
  • No need to visit a physical store. Your primary point of contact with an MVNO will almost always be via phone or Internet only. While a brand such as Telstra, Optus or Vodafone has a physical store presence, MVNO's don't spend their income that way.
  • Access to cheaper technology. Some MVNOs buy cheaper access to older technology networks in order to keep their operating costs low. There are a number of 3G-only plans with larger data quotas that sell on the basis that you get good data value but slower access speeds.
  • More freedom. The majority of MVNOs offer their plans on no-lock-in, month-to-month contracts. This gives you the option to change plans or cancel at any time without paying any exit fees.

Cons

  • Less coverage. While MVNOs on the Optus and Vodafone networks provide the same level of coverage as Optus and Vodafone themselves, Telstra MVNOs often only use "parts" of Telstra's 3G and 4G network. This means slightly reduced coverage and a lower limit on Internet speeds.
  • Fewer handset deals. If you're looking to purchase a phone on contract, your MVNO options are decidedly limited. Most MVNOs don't offer phone plans at all, sticking with SIM-only options instead.

MVNO reliability

Network coverage on an MVNO plan is typically identical to a plan from the underlying network provider. You're accessing the exact same network infrastructure, after all. This means that any outages or reception problems you encounter lie with the underlying network provider, not the MVNO.

Your MVNO should provide a coverage map based on its carrier's network footprint. These aren't always 100 percent accurate, but they're a decent baseline to work from.

Customer service is where MVNOs often differ most dramatically from the big three telcos. You'll typically have fewer points of contact with an MVNO, and you may have to contend with longer wait times when seeking technical support.

As always, it's well worth reading the critical information summary of your contract prior to signing up to avoid any nasty surprises such as higher than expected call costs or data-charging systems.


Australian MVNOs

MVNO Provider network
ALDImobile Telstra
amaysim Mobile Optus
Aussie Broadband Mobile Telstra
Belong Mobile Telstra
Bendigo Telco Optus
Better Life Mobile Telstra
Boost Mobile Telstra
Catch Connect Optus
Click Broadband Telstra
CMobile Telstra/Vodafone
Coles Mobile Optus
Commander Optus
Dodo Mobile Optus
Exetel Mobile Optus
GoTalk Vodafone
gotravelsim mobile Optus
Harbour ISP Telstra
Hello Mobile Vodafone
Hive Mobile Optus
iiNet Mobile Optus
Internode Mobile Optus
iPrimus Optus
Jeenee Optus
KISS Mobile Telstra
Kogan Mobile Vodafone
Lebara Mobile Vodafone
Lycamobile Mobile Telstra
Mate Communicate Mobile Telstra
Moose Optus
More Telecom Telstra
MyNetFone Telstra
OVO Optus
Pennytel Mobile Telstra
Southern Phone Telstra/Optus
SpinTel Optus
Tangerine Telecom Mobile Telstra
TeleChoice Mobile Telstra
Think Mobile Telstra/Vodafone
TPG Mobile Vodafone
Vaya Optus
Woolworths Mobile Telstra
Yomojo Optus
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