MNO or MVNO: Which is the Right Choice for Your IoT Project?

Eseye author


IoT Hardware and Connectivity Specialists


Historically, the greatest obstacle to large-scale, internationally available IoT and M2M deployments has been cellular connectivity. Enabling thousands or millions of ‘Things’ to be connected to the internet out-of-the-box is a significant challenge.  

While setting up initial cellular connectivity at deployment is one concern, as IoT use-cases have become increasingly global, it’s also become more difficult for network operators around the world to provide seamless connectivity once an IoT device leaves their region.

In terms of the business case for IoT initiatives, which often see devices deployed for years at a time, these technical challenges, along with more complex compliance requirements and restrictions around permanent roaming, have made it difficult to provide assurance that IoT devices deployed today will be reliably connected long into the future.

The connectivity model based around Mobile Network Operators (MNO) for consumer and business handsets has historically relied on branded, proprietary SIMs that typically reside in one country, with occasional roaming for short periods.

But this traditional model is not transferable to commercial IoT deployments, where millions of devices need to be shipped around the world and be ready to connect wherever they end up being located.

The MNO model has long been due for disruption, with recent trends seeing the breaking apart of siloed, operator-driven connectivity in favor of a more operator-agnostic approach that enables IoT devices to work wherever they are.

Thanks to the innovation around eSIMs, MVNOs (Mobile Virtual Network Operators) offer a solution in their ability to switch between networks as local or international needs require.

When looking at these different models and choosing your cellular service provider, there are two main options: MNOs or MVNOs. In this blog, we’ll examine what each of them are in turn and their respective pros and cons.

Depending on geography, a mobile network operator or MNO may also be known as a wireless service provider, wireless carrier, cellular network, or mobile carrier, and provides wireless voice and data services on a retail and wholesale basis.

A defining characteristic of a mobile network operator is that the organization will own the license to use a swathe of the mobile spectrum exclusively, as designated by a local regulatory body or government agency. 

This licensed operator will also make the necessary investments in the infrastructure necessary to provide services to subscribers, namely such things as cell towers, base stations, and backhaul and core network connectivity. In the spirit of competition, it’s typical to find several licensed operators in any one geography or country, but it’s also common for them to jointly invest in and share the same infrastructure, especially in dense urban areas where obtaining permission to deploy cellular antennas is difficult.

Each mobile operator will also either own and operate their own provisioning, billing, and customer care systems along with the respective sales and marketing systems and operations or will outsource these to a third party.

MNO revenues are typically generated by offering voice and data services directly to consumer and business users, but network operators may also sell access to network services at wholesale rates to mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs) to resell under their own brand. In some cases, the MNO will own a number of MVNO brands of its own and use these to sell to more niche audiences with targeted marketing and pricing different to its parent brand.

Another model that’s gaining significant traction among MNOs, sees operators sign agreements with global IoT connectivity solutions providers and specialist MVNOs like Eseye that standardize on a global eSIM and IoT platform solution and give the operator access to a wider market.

Some recent examples of such deals include the partnership between Eseye and Canadian operator TELUS, to provide seamless cellular IoT connectivity to more than 700 networks in more than 190 countries; and another deal with Africa’s largest MNO, MTN Group, for MTN South Africa to provide IoT solutions to across Africa.

While it’s true that as the ultimate owner of the spectrum license and infrastructure, the MNO has the most control and flexibility over pricing and service, they are restricted to operating in one region or with a limited set of roaming partnerships around the world. Therefore, it’s likely an enterprise business will need agreements with multiple MNOs if they were to go down this route. An alternative might be to use an MVNO.

A mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) provides retail voice and data services over a wireless network but does not own a spectrum license and may or may not own wireless network infrastructure.

At the very least, the MVNO will own customer-facing systems and processes like sales, marketing, and customer service activities like customer care and dispute resolution.

Depending on the amount of infrastructure owned in the MVNO’s tech stack, they are typically known as a ‘thick/full’ or ‘thin’ MVNO. Some thin MVNOs will outsource almost everything and essentially act as branded resellers of SIMs and data. There are specialist companies that provide the customer service, operational and billing support systems (OSS and BSS), and even the marketing and sales personnel, known as Mobile Virtual Network Enablers (MVNE).

Thick or ‘full’ MVNOs on the other hand will deploy their own infrastructure as an alternative to the MNO’s, giving them greater control over the differentiated services they can offer.

MVNOs frequently target niches that are underserved by the MNO. As an example, in the Transforma Insights IoT MVNO market landscape 2023, Eseye is listed as a Tier 1 MVNO, and described as a “full MVNO with one or more genuine technical or competitive differentiators relative to other MVNOs and MNOs”.

An example of these capabilities is seen in Eseye’s AnyNet Federation, which acts as a specialized IoT MVNO with global coverage that brings over 700 operators together in one place, including the option of localized and roaming networks.

Specialist MVNOs are a popular choice for IoT as they can bundle multi-regional connectivity under one umbrella, managing the individual relationships with carriers on the business’s behalf which can reduce a significant amount of cost and streamline connectivity management.

Unless you are an MVNO or MNO, it’s unlikely that as a business you would have any direct contact with a Mobile Virtual Network Enabler (MVNE).

MVNEs are specialist companies that deploy, operate, and provide third-party access to network infrastructure and related services, such as administration, business support, SIM provisioning, and OSS/BSS, to enable MVNOs to offer services to their own customers. The MVNE does not have a relationship with customers but is rather an enabler, hence the name.

A related type of company is a Mobile Virtual Network Aggregator (MVNA).

If you consider an MVNE as a full-fledged telecom solution, providing and operating infrastructure, a Mobile Virtual Network Aggregator (MVNA) is more of a business model which enables the retail of an operator’s airtime and data and routing of traffic over the MVNE’s own hardware.

MVNAs could be seen as a broker that arranges the access to an MNO and then resells that to a variety of MVNOs. An MVNO could then use an MVNE to access additional infrastructure and services.

With growing demand for international connectivity, specialist MVNOs are emerging as the best option for mobile connectivity when delivering an enterprise-centric IoT platform.

IoT focused, operator-agnostic MVNOs can offer the ability to switch between networks, utilizing localization and sponsored roaming as needed to solve the specific customer problem. For example with Eseye’s AnyNet Connectivity, IoT devices have the widest choice of local network connections and roaming partners and also avoid the risks of permanent roaming – including devices being disconnected with little or no notice.

IoT MVNOs also provide greater integration options and other more advanced connectivity functionality, such as the ability to access other Radio Access Type (RAT) technologies, for example satellite (R17).

These next-generation MVNOs go well beyond aggregating and reselling cellular roaming and finally provide true global device-to-cloud IoT and M2M connectivity, keeping control in the hands of the enterprise.

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Eseye author


IoT Hardware and Connectivity Specialists


Eseye brings decades of end-to-end expertise to integrate and optimise IoT connectivity delivering near 100% uptime. From idea to implementation and beyond, we deliver lasting value from IoT. Nobody does IoT better.

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