COMMUNICATION BREAKDOWN: How Mobile Networks Are Pulling the Plug From Underneath Customers

THE SITUATION:  The cellular phone and mobile data industry continues to explode as new technologies emerge, speeds increase, and people become less "tethered" to their devices, opting instead to go wireless, working outdoors, or en route on planes or trains.    Most of us are familiar with the major players in the mobile communications market.   T-Mobile, Verizon, and AT&T are considered the "big three" of the market, at least here in the US; note that this article therefore will focus on the US market, and does not take into account non-US based providers or services.

A SLICE OF THE PIE:  Beginning prior to, and maturing by 2011, a special market was established for third-party companies to offer mobile phone services at reduced rates over the big three mobile networks; however, these third parties would actually be using the network and bandwidth supplied by the aforementioned big three.  The concept of the MOBILE VIRTUAL NETWORK OPERATOR, or MVNO was born, and it allowed hundreds if not thousands more individuals to sign up for and maintain mobile phone services in a budget-friendly manner.   For a list of current United States MVNOs, see the following article on Wikipedia:


STEPCHILDREN AND ORPHANS:   There are many good points to subscribing to an MVNO; not all are obvious to the consumer, although that is changing.  While the benefits of a lower price point and flexible plans, being able to bring your own device, and provision services without the need for one of the big 3 networks is appealing, there are some drawbacks.  Some of the drawbacks include companies offering slightly older phone models for direct sale, configuration may be harder for non tech savvy people, and data traffic is de-prioritized to favor the primary users of the network; the MVNOs basically share the "leftovers."  Another issue is that there is no guarantee what networks an MVNO will prioritize or use; in recent years, several MVNOs such as CONSUMER CELLULAR and TING have switched from CDMA to GSM technology, with the latter being prevalent now.

GSM / CDMA DIFFERENCES - AND THE PHASE-OUT OF BOTH:  According to PC Magazine, "In the US, Verizon, US Cellular, and the old Sprint network (now owned by T-Mobile) used CDMA. AT&T and T-Mobile used GSM. Most of the rest of the world used GSM. The global spread of GSM came about because in 1987, Europe mandated the technology by law, and because GSM comes from an industry consortium."  As of 2022, and the need for upgrades in cellular technology and supporting faster data rates, CDMA technology is being phased out, with GSM being the standard (supporting 4th generation technology, AKA 4G, until 5G is standardized.  For a full breakdown of this, from the article where the above quote was taken, see:


ONE TO RULE THEM ALL:   As the PC Magazine article alludes, the eventual 5G standard to replace 4G or LTE does not automatically guarantee compatibility, either just as a standard FM radio doesn't guarantee you can listen to every FM station; there are other factors in play.  These factors, such as band assignment, frequency range, and tower placement, will plague MVNOs for years to come as the technology updates pushed out will likely be a year behind the national curve.   


CAPITALIZING ON THE CHANGE:  MVNOs understand that consumers simply want a phone that works and like the main carriers they piggyback off of, they will be happy to sell you a phone that satisfies that requirement; however some more savvy individuals will opt to bring their own device.  It should be enough to check the specifications on a phone that you want to use and confirm that these specs match the provider's requirements.  In short, this would mean a phone that supports 4G or 5G LTE, along with VoLTE, which stands for Voice Over LTE.  However, some MVNOs, in an effort to get customers to upgrade phones, are "blacklisting" perfectly viable handsets; those providers who are operating from AT&T's and T-Mobile's networks have more to gain from this, as they can easily cut off service - though it would illegal to do so in most jurisdictions.  An example of such involves sending a message indicating a potential "sun setting" of service under the older 3G standard, and misidentifying handsets by their IMEI (International Mobile Equipment Identity) number.  TMobile MVNO Ultra Mobile sent out emails to that effect, even though a phone currently operating on their network would also support their newer technology; thankfully it was confirmed that a provider cannot forcibly stop a consumer from using a perfectly-working device, even if their internal database says it is incompatible.

OUR ADVICE, NOT AN ENDORSEMENT,  AS OF SEPTEMBER 2022:   From what we have seen and experienced first hand, our advice when shopping for an MVNO is to find one supporting T-Mobile's current LTE network at 4G or 5G on band 1900; this is almost guaranteed to work in the future, with your current phone requiring only a new SIM card or simple settings change.  Your phone must also support VoLTE.  If not, you may have issues with calling over the cellular network although text- and mms-messaging, as well as voice and video communications through third-party apps would still work fine. We would also advise looking at Motorola phones, and potentially staying away from SAMSUNG GALAXY phones UNLESS purchased directly from the MVNO as part of a new service plan, as band compatibility on OEM units cannot be guaranteed.  If you have any questions please send us an e-mail using the link below.