Piggybacking phone providers are companies like Sky Mobile, Tesco Mobile, GiffGaff and TalkTalk. They rent space from one of the big four networks (EE, O2, Vodafone and Three) to provide a reliable phone service to customers all over the country. These companies are known as MVNOs or Mobile Virtual Network Operators and there are more than 40 of them in the UK.

This wealth of choice is brilliant for consumers because it fosters better quality customer service and more competitive pricing. It also offers those in rural areas, where signal is provided by only one network, the option to switch to an MVNO renting space from said network. So if, for example, EE’s customer service is notoriously bad or their prices too steep, you’re not tied to them forever.

The Pros and Cons of MVNOs

Before you immediately run to switch to an MVNO, let’s first look at the pros and cons of such an operator. It’s important to know the full facts before you sign up to any contract. Here’s how MVNO’s compare to the main networks in several important areas:

Signal strength and data speeds

Nobody wants sluggish web browsing and patchy signal. Fortunately, because MVNO’s rent space from a main network, the quality of signal is exactly the same as if you were signed up to that network. But before you sign up to an MVNO, do check that the network they use provides good signal in your area.

There is the possibility of slower data speeds on MVNOs that don’t use 4G. If data speed is important to you, just be sure you choose one that offers 4G.


Pricing is probably second only to signal strength in terms of importance to customers. No one wants to pay more than they need to for their monthly phone bill. We all love a good deal, and fortunately MVNOs really deliver here.

They are generally far cheaper than the big networks for both contracts and SIM-only deals. In fact, you can pick up a SIM-only deal from ID Mobile for just £3.99 a month. The reason why they’re so much cheaper is because they don’t have to pay for expensive network infrastructure. There are no maintenance or management costs – just rental fees – and we the consumers benefit.


Let’s make a quick comparison. Smarty, an MVNO sub-company of Three, offers a SIM-only tariff with 2 GB data (3G and 4G) and unlimited texts and minutes for just £7.50 a month. EE’s most similar SIM-only tariff provides 1 GB data, 250 minutes and unlimited texts for £10 a month. In this scenario you’re paying 25% more for less allowance on the large network. It doesn’t take a mathematical genius to work out where the better value is.

You can get even cheaper tariffs with smaller allowances which are perfect for light users and children. GiffGaff’s cheapest ‘goody bag’ is just £6 a month and you get 500 MB of data, 300 minutes and 500 texts. And the aforementioned £3.99 a month ID Mobile deal gives you unlimited texts, 150 minutes and 500MB of data. Another one to consider is 1p Mobile where, as the name suggests, everything costs 1p making it ideal for light users.

Benefits and perks

Benefits and perks, such as those offered on O2 Priority where customers can secure early gig tickets, are no longer available if you switch to an MVNO. Even if that MVNO uses O2’s network. However, many MVNO’s offer their own perks, such as Tesco Mobile giving customers Clubcard points for every £1 spent.

Customer service

Customer service is generally far better at an MVNO than a large network. Recent surveys by consumer group Which? have revealed fairly widespread dissatisfaction with Vodafone, EE and O2. While in contrast, smaller MVNO’s topped customer satisfaction polls. The only problem is that customer service may not be available 24/7 at a small provider.


Roaming is really the only area where MVNOs fall down. Where the main four networks offer free roaming in Europe and often beyond, most virtual operators do not. If you only travel once or twice a year, this probably isn’t an issue. But if you’re a frequent traveller you may prefer to stick to one of the four networks.

Final thoughts

As you can see, MVNOs are actually superior to the large networks in many ways. They provide excellent customer service and no-frills tariffs at extremely affordable prices. And with more than 40 companies serving the UK, you’re never short on choice.

However, if you want certain perks or need free roaming, a large network may serve you better and there are good deals to be found. Work out exactly what you want from your phone provider and then use a comparison tool to find the best deal for you.


Photo credit: Raw Pixel





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