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UK MVNO guide: Everything you need to know

Who are the major UK MVNOs and what makes them tick? Here's everything you need to know about GiffGaff, BT Mobile, iD Mobile, Virgin Mobile and Tesco Mobile
By
July 16, 2015
In our five-part UK network review series, we take a look at the UK’s major networks and major virtual network operators (MVNO), including the plans and services they offer and whether they’re about to be snapped up or buying a rival in the biggest shake-up of the UK market in a decade. In today’s final segment, we look at the major MVNOs in the UK and exactly what they offer.

While there are only four major networks in the UK, there a dozen more virtual networks, that offer mobile services running on one of the networks’ infrastructure. While some of the MVNOs are for specific customers and not readily available for all to buy, other MVNOs aim to challenge the existing status quo with unique plans and aggressive competition.

In today’s series, we’re looking at five of the major MVNOs; BT Mobile, iD, Tesco Mobile, GiffGaff and Virgin Mobile.

BT Mobile

SHAUN CURRY/AFP/Getty Images
SHAUN CURRY/AFP/Getty Images

Key Details:

  • Formed: March 2014
  • MVNO Network runs on: EE
  • Offers 4G: Yes
  • Offers Pay Monthly: SIM only, no handsets
  • Offers Pay As You Go: very small range of PAYG handsets (six to choose from)
  • Owns spectrum: Yes (acquired through spectrum auction for £187 million):
    • 2 x 15MHz of 2600MHz
    • 1 x 20 MHz of 2600MHz (unpaired)
  • Quad Play services: Yes: BT Mobile, BT Vision, BT Broadband and BT phones.

Summary:

BT had a long history in the UK telecoms industry under its Cellnet and (then) O2 guises until the latter was sold to Telefonica in 2005. Since its exit from the telecoms industry, BT has continued to offer mobile services to some of its business customers and in March 2014, BT Mobile became an MVNO in the UK running on EE’s network.

Related: EE Network Review (2015): Everything you need to know

A few months later (in August 2014), BT announced that they would be offering 4G services to BT Mobile customers while in March 2015, the company announced that BT Mobile was now offering 4G contracts from as little as £5 per month.

BT is at the heart of the UK’s network shake up as the company goes from MVNO to major network thanks to the purchase of EE for £12.5 billion, which is expected to complete next March. Once this completes, EE’s vast network spectrum will combine with the spectrum owned by BT’s subsidiary and it’s likely that EE will be amalgamated into BT’s existing services and BT Mobile will become the second largest network provider in the UK.

Price Plans:

To remain as competitive as possible, BT Mobile launched by offering the UK’s cheapest 4G contracts for just £5 per month (for existing BT Broadband customers). In total, there are only three SIM Only plans available to choose from:

  • £5.00/m: 200 minutes, Unlimited Texts, 500MB 4G data
  • £12.00/m: 500 minutes, Unlimited Texts, 2GB 4G data
  • £20.00/m: Unlimited, Unlimited Texts, 20GB 4G data

If you live in a house with BT Broadband, you’ll get the prices listed above, otherwise if you don’t have BT Broadband, you’ll have to pay an additional £5 per month surcharge.

What is quite interesting is that while EE offers a maximum of 10GB data on SIM Only for £28.99 per month, BT offers double the data for almost half the price. Sounds odd right? Well, there’s a catch. From our personal experience, we can reveal that BT Mobile plans are capped at around 30Mbps on 4G (meaning there’s no access to the superfast LTE-Advanced double-speed 4G network). That being said, BT Mobile is certainly interesting for all customers who don’t need the fastest speeds.

All BT Mobile customers also get the following perks:

  • BT Wi-Fi: Free and unlimited access to more than 5 million hotspots
  • Spend Caps: Monthly spend caps on all bills, including roaming caps and usage alerts via SMS
  • Unlimited 0800 calls and voicemail: unlimited calls to 0800 numbers and voicemail free of charge
  • BT Sport Lite: all BT Mobile customers can watch live Barclay’s Premier League football, Aviva Premiership Rugby and Scottish Premier League games for free.

Conclusion:

Overall, BT definitely has one of the most compelling MVNO offerings on the market and its packages could even compete against the established major networks. Its acquisition of EE will see the network become a major player that is capable of beating not only the existing MVNOs but all the major networks as well.

Three’s buyout of O2 could prove to be the biggest challenge that BT Mobile faces in the very near future and Vodafone should certainly not be ruled out as rumours persist that they are interested in buying chief TV rival, Sky. Whatever does happen in the UK telecoms and terrestrial services markets, BT is set to be at the heart of it and BT Mobile will definitely have a part to play.

iD Mobile (Carphone Warehouse)

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Key Details:

  • Formed: May 2015
  • MVNO Network runs on: Three
  • Offers 4G: Yes
  • Offers Pay Monthly: Handsets and SIM Only
  • Offers Pay As You Go: Handsets and SIM Only
  • Owns spectrum: No
  • Quad Play services: None

Summary:

Formed earlier this year, the iD Mobile is Carphone Warehouse’s entry into MVNO market and the newest MVNO in the UK. The key reason that Carphone launched iD Mobile is the ability to sell contracts on iD Mobile through its own sales channels (alongside plans from other networks) and the network’s price plans are certainly interesting, offering something for everyone.

Related: Three Network Review (2015): Everything you need to know

Price Plans:

iD Mobile’s plans are split across three tiers for handsets and three tiers for SIM Only plans. Its Handset packages are:

  • GoTo Plan: this is the entry-level contract, offering calls, texts and data on either 12 month or 24 month contracts. 12-month plans vary between £13.50 per month and £37.50 per month while 24-month plans cost between £13.50 per month and £23.50 per month.
  • ShockProof Plan: Similar to the GoTo plan, the ShockProof plan offers calls, texts and data for between £7.50 per month and £12.50 per month on a 24-month contract only. This plan includes a £5 buffer each month and is designed for people who have a limited budget and allows you to cap your monthly spend (to the price plan plus the buffer).
  • TakeAway plan: this is by far, iD’s best plan and arguably one of the most compelling packages on the market. Costing between £25.50 per month and £45.50 per month on a 24-month contract only, the plan includes calls, texts and data with the added benefit of being able to use your inclusive minutes, texts and data free of charge in 22 countries around the world.

The network’s handset plans are certainly compelling and its 30-day rolling SIM Only plans are somewhat similar apart from one key difference:

  • GoTo Plan: just like the handset plan, this offers calls, texts and data for between £7.50 per month and £20 per month on a rolling contract. The plan ranges from offering 500MB 4G data for £7.50 per month to unlimited data on the £20 SIM only plan, although the latter is currently only a launch offer and is only likely to be offered for a limited period of time.
  • ShockProof plan: Just like the handset package, this lets you fix your monthly spend and offers calls, texts and data. The plan comes with a £5 buffer on top of your allowances (which can be increased via its website) and like the GoTo Plan, offers between 500MB data (£7.50 per month) and Unlimited data (£20.00 per month) although the latter is a special launch offer.
  • DataOnly plan: this is perfect for anyone who only needs mobile data and offers 4G data for between £5 per month and £20 per month. The £5 per month plan offers 500MB data while the top plan offers 20GB data for £20 per month and is perfect if you find yourself needing data on the go (as it can be used in a mobile WiFi hotspot).

If there’s one thing that’s disappointing about iD Mobile’s plans, it is that you have to be tied into a long 24-month handset contract in order to use your allowances abroad as the TakeAway plan isn’t available on SIM Only. However, the network does say that it is constantly evaluating its offering so this may change at some point in the future.

Rather than offer the traditional perks that other networks offer, iD Mobile aims to market itself as a network built around you. The company claims to offer the ability to choose the perfect package and plan to suit you, the ability to add extras whenever you want and the only network to offer you the maximum control and flexibility over your package.

Conclusion:

Overall, iD Mobile is certainly an interesting proposition and it is the only MVNO to offer a compelling roaming package (that actually offers free roaming in 4 more countries than Three, the network that iD Mobile runs on).

As the UK’s largest retailer, Carphone Warehouse has the added ability to undercut other network plans using its own MVNO but, at least initially, the company’s handsets and price plans are similarly priced to rivals. For example, iD’s Galaxy S6 package is bettered by a deal offered on Vodafone through Carphone Warehouse but its SIM Only packages are certainly some of the best on the market.

There’s no doubting that iD Mobile has all the makings of a successful MVNO and with the added expected push through Carphone Warehouse stores, its likely that it will become established as one of the major MVNOs in the very near future. Whether it stands a chance to challenging the established networks remains to be seen but the Carphone Warehouse connection should certainly not be underestimated.

Tesco Mobile

TescoMobile

Key Details:

  • Formed: May 2003
  • MVNO Network runs on: O2
  • Offers 4G: Yes
  • Offers Pay Monthly: Handsets and SIM Only
  • Offers Pay As You Go: Handsets and SIM Only
  • Owns spectrum: No
  • Quad Play services: None

Summary:

One of the oldest MVNOs on the market, Tesco Mobile initially launched as a small MVNO but has risen to become one of the biggest in the UK. Sold directly through Tesco Phone Shops (in larger Tesco supermarkets) as well as via the Tesco Phone Shop website, Tesco Mobile has gained customers through an attractive offering and clever marketing to existing Tesco customers.

Tesco Mobile operates in the UK, Ireland, Slovakia, Hungary and Czech Republic and 90% of the company is owned by Tesco (or a subsidiary), with O2 owning the other 10%. Until January 2015, the supermarket offered Tesco Broadband, Homephone and Blinkbox (video-on-demand) but these were sold to TalkTalk as part of a debt reduction scheme and it’s rumoured that Tesco Mobile could also be sold to serve a debt bill that currently sits at £22 billion.

Price Plans:

Tesco Mobile’s price plans are very similar to O2 in that the company splits the cost of your monthly package into payments for your phone and airtime. Like O2 Refresh – which Tesco’s Anytime Upgrade package is built on – you pick a handset to buy at 0% interest and a plan and then make two direct debit payments each month; one for your phone and one for your plan.

Related: O2 Network Review (2015): Everything you need to know

The benefits of the Anytime Upgrade package are that it allows you to upgrade at any time (by paying off the remaining amount of your device plan) or reduce your monthly outgoings by paying off your handset. Like O2 Refresh, when you pay off your device contract, you’re free to upgrade or leave Tesco Mobile as the contract reverts to a SIM only plan.

Tesco Mobile’s pay monthly handset plans start at just £8.50 per month, while SIM only deals start at £10 per month and the MVNO offers both bundles and non-bundle Pay As You Go options. One of the biggest perks to being a Tesco Mobile customer is that – just like major network Three, who is incidentally in the process of buying O2, all Tesco Mobile customers get 4G at no extra charge.

Conclusion:

Overall, it’s unsurprising to see Tesco Mobile offer a Refresh-style Anytime Upgrade pay monthly package like one of its parents O2 but the plans themselves are actually quite competitive. Many people have questioned whether O2 Refresh is actually worth the split payments and personally, I’ve found that its incredibly useful, especially when I want to upgrade early or need to pay off a contract as a phone is broken. Like O2, Tesco Mobile doesn’t offer handsets without the split payment contract so you may need to look elsewhere if you’re not happy with the Anytime Upgrade offering.

GiffGaff

giffgaff-logo

Key Details:

  • Formed: November 2009
  • MVNO Network runs on: O2
  • Offers 4G: Yes
  • Offers Pay Monthly: No.
  • Offers Pay As You Go: Offers SIM Only. Handsets available either outright or on finance
  • Owns spectrum: No
  • Quad Play services: None

Summary:

GiffGaff is the only MVNO that’s technically run by a network themselves as it runs on the O2 network and is owned by O2’s owners, Telefónica. The network is definitely the most unique in the UK as it doesn’t employ call centres and instead, is run by an online community who answer questions and solve queries within 24 hours.

Along with its unique structure, GiffGaff is also unique in its package offering as the network offers handsets on finance but doesn’t offer pay monthly contracts. All GiffGaff phones are unlocked as well, meaning complete flexibility in the way you use your phone.

Price Plans:

GiffGaff only offers Pay As You Go deals but if you don’t have the money available to buy a new phone outright, the company can also finance the deal for you (through a partnership with RateSetter).

The way it works is simple: choose your phone, then choose how long you want to pay it back over (6, 12, 18 or 24 months) and choose how much you want to pay up front (£25, £50, £100, £200). Then you choose a goodybag (aka a Pay as You Go bundle) to go with your phone and together, they form the basis for your monthly cost. The unique thing about GiffGaff Phones is that – at least according to the GiffGaff website – you can change your goodybag at any time and there’s only a soft credit check to valid your identity, which doesn’t leave a mark on your credit score.

The cost of the credit isn’t too much either, with the average interest set to between 9 and 10 percent. As an example, the Galaxy S6 costs £489 outright (which is cheaper than the RRP) and a 24-month finance agreement with £25 upfront works out to be £535 in total (again cheaper than the RRP). Increase the upfront cost and the overall monthly cost goes down, as it does if you choose to pay it over a shorter period of time.

Related: Vodafone Network Review (2015): Everything you need to know

GiffGaff have a choice of Goodybags available as well, offering both 3G and 4G services for those who need them. All goodybags come with free calls and texts to other Giffgaff users and cost between £5/m and £20/m for a 3G goody bag and £12/m and £18/m for a 4G goodybag. Here’s the different goodybags available:

Monthly price:Network:Minutes:Texts:Data:
Monthly price:

Network:

Minutes:

Texts:

Data:

Monthly price:
£5.00
Network:
3G
Minutes:
100
Texts:
300
Data:
100 MB
Monthly price:
£7.50
Network:
3G
Minutes:
250
Texts:
Unlimited
Data:
500 MB
Monthly price:
£10.00
Network:
3G
Minutes:
500
Texts:
Unlimited
Data:
1 GB
Monthly price:
£12.00
Network:
3G
Minutes:
500
Texts:
Unlimited
Data:
3 GB
Monthly price:
£12.00
Network:
4G
Minutes:
500
Texts:
Unlimited
Data:
1 GB
Monthly price:
£15.00
Network:
3G
Minutes:
500
Texts:
Unlimited
Data:
5 GB
Monthly price:
£15.00
Network:
4G
Minutes:
500
Texts:
Unlimited
Data:
3 GB
Monthly price:
£18.00
Network:
4G
Minutes:
1000
Texts:
Unlimited
Data:
5 GB
Monthly price:
£20.00
Network:
3G
Minutes:
2000
Texts:
Unlimited
Data:
Unlimited
Monthly price:

Network:

Minutes:

Texts:

Data:

Conclusion:

Overall, GiffGaff is certainly a unique network and it definitely has a unique proposition. By offering contracts (and PAYG handsets) at cheaper than its rivals with less stringent rules, the network can appeal to all users who are disillusioned with their existing network.

The unique finance offering will definitely appeal to customers who have difficulties getting accepted for traditional pay monthly contracts and in some cases at least, the finance option can still work out cheaper than buying the handset outright from the manufacturer.

Despite being a non-traditional MVNO thanks to its community-run structure, GiffGaff continues to grow and has a loyal band of users that shows no signs of abating. As other networks introduce even more complex plans and contracts that can be difficult to understand (and may work out rather expensive), GiffGaff’s unique plans could see an increase in its subscriber base.

Given that O2 is currently in the process of being bought out by Three UK, it’s unclear what the future holds for GiffGaff or whether Telefónica will exclude GiffGaff from the deal. Whatever does happen, at least for now, GiffGaff has a bright future ahead of it.

Virgin Mobile

virgin-mobile-richard-branson-mobile-virtual-network.com_

Key Details:

  • Formed: 1999 (2007 as part of Virgin Media)
  • Also known as: Virgin Media Mobile
  • MVNO Network runs on: EE
  • Offers 4G: No
  • Offers Pay Monthly: Handsets and SIM Only
  • Offers Pay As You Go: Handsets and SIM Only
  • Owns spectrum: No
  • Quad Play services: Yes (Virgin Media): Broadband, Mobile, TV, Landline

Summary:

The world’s first MVNO, Virgin Mobile was formed in 1999 as a joint venture between Richard Branson’s Virgin Group and One2One. Virgin Mobile enjoyed several years of growth and awards – that were coupled with behind-the-scenes power struggles and courtroom battles between the two parent companies – before merging with NTL:Telewest in April 2006.

Less than a year later, NTL:Telewest rebranded to Virgin Media in February 2007 and became the first quad-play company offering broadband, television, landline and mobile phone to customers. Virgin Mobile remains an important MVNO in the UK, especially as its fixed-line internet arm – Virgin Broadband – is the second largest UK broadband provider with 20% of market share (according to Ofcom data at the end of 2013).

Price Plans:

Virgin Mobile offers the latest handsets and a range of packages in the same format as O2 Refresh and Tesco Mobile (see above). The network’s Freestyle lets you split the cost of your handset from your airtime but what makes it unique is that Virgin Mobile doesn’t run on O2; Freestyle is the first UK tariff that is doesn’t use the O2 network to explore the split tariff concept.

Freestyle is also unique as – unlike other providers – it offers every handset with every one of its packages. This means that you can buy the latest phone with a basic plan and offers the most flexibility on any UK tariff. As an example, the Galaxy S6 is available for £31 per month (£26 per month for the handset, £5 per month for the airtime) which, although it does have low allowances – 250 minutes, Unlimited texts and 250MB data – is one of the cheapest deals on the market.

The key thing that it’s worth remembering is that Virgin Mobile only offers 4G to business customers so its cheap tariff comes with the caveat of vastly slower speeds, especially as EE has arguably the UK’s fastest 4G network. Other perks available to Virgin Mobile customers is Wi-Fi on the London Underground at no extra cost, “exclusive perks” that include V Festival and cinema tickets and unlimited free voicemail that doesn’t come out of your inclusive allowances.

Conclusion:

Virgin Mobile is certainly an important MVNO in the market but it remains the only major MVNO not to offer 4G to its customers. Although it does offer 4G to its business customers, consumers are limited to EE’s somewhat slow and patchy 3G coverage.

Virgin could switch from EE to O2, who are getting bought by another rival, Three who back the iD Mobile network. Confusing right?
EE’s buyout by BT is also likely to pose an interesting question for Virgin Media as it already competes with BT in broadband, landline and television and Virgin Mobile will be in direction competition with BT/EE. One potential solution that’s been suggested is Virgin Mobile switching its MVNO agreement – which was last renewed for an unspecified period of time in October 2013 – to EE’s rival O2, who, in turn, is about to be bought by Three to form the UK’s largest mobile carrier.

The switch to Freestyle contracts is also quite interesting as they were only launched in November 2014 – a few weeks before the BT and EE deal became public knowledge – and could be a precursor to a switch to O2’s network. The future of Virgin Mobile is uncertain but whatever does happen, Virgin Mobile is still likely to have a loyal user base, at least for the foreseeable future.

UK MVNOs: Final Thoughts

The UK’s MVNO market is fiercely competitive and there’s several others that we’ve not mentioned, including Tesco’s rivals Sainsbury’s and Asda (owned by Walmart), who both offer mobile services to customers. Then there’s Virgin and BT’s rival Sky, who recently launched its own network (running on Vodafone) in a pilot trial that’s limited to just 200,000 customers. The list is endless and there’s plenty of others offering both post-paid and pre-paid services to customers, including the renowned Lyca Mobile and Lebara Mobile.

[related_videos title=”Top Flagship Devices:” align=”right” type=”custom” videos=”624837,624818,622383,621025,604157,606876″]The biggest shake up of the major UK network market is likely to also lead to plenty of renegotiations in the MVNO market as networks change hands and MVNOs seek to align interests. Although Vodafone is set to become one of the UK’s smallest networks as part of the shake-up, the trial with Sky and agreements with Lebara and Lyca stand it in good stead to take a larger slice of the growing lucrative MVNO market.

Virtual Networks are a growing way for more companies to get into the highly-lucrative mobile market and with the demand for mobile devices and data ever growing, it shows no signs of abating. As the number of MVNOs grow, the MVNO market will become saturated with providers and offerings meaning companies will need to be creative in their approach, which will in turn, lead to an even more competitive market.

Do you use an MVNO or do you use one of the major networks? Let us know your views in the comments below and don’t forget to vote in our poll! For an in-depth look at the major networks, head over to our network reviews section.