The 'big four' mobile networks may not be the best option for you - here's why

Employees on their mobile phones
(Image credit: Photo by Ketut Subiyanto from Pexels)

Consumers seeking better value for money and customer service amid the rising cost of living might be better off with a mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) than with one of the ‘big four’ major network operators (MNOs), new analysis suggests.

Mobile Virtual Network Operators (MVNOs) do not own their own wireless infrastructure, but instead use radio networks operated by one of EE, O2, Three and Vodafone.

Some, such as Sky and Virgin Media, operate MVNOs to complement their other communications services, while others, such as Giffgaff and Tesco Mobile, offer aggressively priced handset and SIM-only deals to win market share. Other MVNOs exist to serve a particular market niche, like Superdrug Mobile, which complements the retailer's reward programme.

MVNO popularity

A study of 16 MVNOs and MNOs by consumer watchdog Which? found that several MVNOs outperformed their host networks, with customers believing they were receiving a better deal.

Three was ranked 13th, receiving the lowest rating for network reliability, yet its MVNO brand SMARTY was the highest rated of any network. EE came 11th, yet its Plusnet subsidiary was joint-second, while Vodafone (10th) was outscored by its own VOXI MVNO (5th).

O2, the best performing of the ‘big four’ in 8th, was still beaten by three networks that use its infrastructure – Giffgaff, Tesco Mobile (both joint 2nd), and Sky Mobile (6th).

Which? said that value for money, coupled with the fact that MVNOs typically focus on flexible SIM-Only contracts that mean customers can switch more easily, even when inflation-based price hikes take effect.

Several mobile operators include annual price increases coupled with inflation into the small print, meaning customers cannot exit their contract without a penalty. A customer on a rolling SIM Only contract would be able to do this, however.

“The vast majority of mobile users are with one of the Big Four providers, but our research suggests consumers could save money during the cost of living crisis and get better service by switching to one of the networks challenging their dominance,” said Natalie Hitchins, Which? Head of Home Products and Services.

“Anyone looking for a reliable carrier that offers a flexible contract and good value for money should consider one of the virtual networks, who continue to outperform the Big Four year after year.”

One potential barrier to this is that customers of the ‘big four’ tend to be far more loyal to their networks. More than half of EE, O2 and Vodafone customers have been with their provide for five years or more, as have 42% of Three subscribers. 

Steve McCaskill is TechRadar Pro's resident mobile industry expert, covering all aspects of the UK and global news, from operators to service providers and everything in between. He is a former editor of Silicon UK and journalist with over a decade's experience in the technology industry, writing about technology, in particular, telecoms, mobile and sports tech, sports, video games and media.