So many network operators! How do I choose?

There’s still a sizeable majority of people out there that, by default, tend to choose one of the “big four” UK operators. Sure, there’s reasons for looking just at EE, Vodafone, O2 and Three. You’ll get added benefits like WiFi calling and, because they’re big companies and you’re using their masts directly, it’s fair to say that you’ll probably get the latest technology, a wide set of roaming agreements, big customer service centres and a large range of phones to buy.

Now, though, people are getting quite savvy. They’re buying phones out-right or through finance deals on sites like Amazon, Buymobiles, Carphone Warehouse, Mobile Phones Direct or, to make things a bit cheaper, they’re getting reconditioned smartphones. Then, to get the best deal, they’re shopping around for SIM-only offers.

This, then, is where there’s an explosion of choice. You enter a world of “MVNO” which means nothing to most people. It stands for “Mobile Virtual Network Operator” but., in my head, it should actually be “VMNO” (Virtual Mobile Network Operator).

I know, confusing, right? Basically it’s the practice of supplying a service using someone else’s masts. At the last count, if I’ve added this up right, there’s 62 of these “virtual” operators for you to choose from. That’s a lot.

So, if you go with TalkTalk Mobile, the signal, the data transmission, the overall coverage – it comes from O2 masts. If you go with Sky Mobile, it’s the same. Lycamobile. Same. giffgaff? They’re O2 .. err.. too. And Tesco Mobile, Truphone, KC Mobile and others.

If you switch to Asda Mobile then you’re going to be using the EE infrastructure. Meem, The Phone Co-op, Vectophone, Virgin Mobile, Plusnet, BT Mobile etc… All EE.

Three host iD Mobile, SMARTY, The People’s Operator, Freedompop and more.

Meanwhile Vodafone only host 6 – VOXI (a Vodafone operation), Lebara and Age UK are amongst them.

Now, what you should take note of is that not all of these operators offer all the stuff you might get on a “normal” network. Some don’t do 4G, some don’t do 2G and a lot don’t do WiFi calling. In fact, if WiFi calling is a deal-breaker for you, then you’ve got to purely look at BT Mobile, Freedompop or iD Mobile in the “virtual” operator space.

To cut through the noise, if you’re ever confused about which masts you’re going to be using, use this excellent Wikipedia article to see. It’s really, really useful and you can order it by name, host network or wireless technology..

If you want to compare prices, head to Oh, and don’t forget that more and more of these operators are offering contract handsets too.