What Is a Mobile Network Operator (MNO)?

A Mobile Network Operator (MNO) offers cellular network access for mobile and IoT devices to connect wirelessly to various services. Also known as cellular carriers, wireless service providers, or cellular companies – the definition of an MNO is a company that provides services within specific countries or regions, where they often compete with other operators in the same market.

Did you know that the world’s first mobile network operator, Nippon Telegraph and Telephone (NTT), was founded in Japan in 1979 when it launched the first commercial cellular network? There are now over 20 Mobile Network Operators with over 100 million subscribers. As of April 2024, the largest MNO by subscribers was China Mobile, with over 997.4 million subscribers.

MNOs often collaborate with Mobile Virtual Network Operators (MVNOs) to lease network access and offer their own services without owning the infrastructure. We’ll discuss the differences between MNOs and MVNOs later in the article.

Key Takeaway: A Mobile Network Operator (MNO) is a company that provides access to cellular networks. Also known as a cellular carrier, wireless service provider, or cellular company, an MNO offers cellular services in a specific country or region, sometimes overlapping with other MNOs.

How Does a Mobile Network Operator Work?

The majority of MNOs are built from a collection of network infrastructure, core network components, such as Mobile Switching Centres (MSC) and Base Station Controllers (BSC), and data management services provided through technologies such as 4G and 5G.

This cellular network infrastructure enables MNOs to offer reliable mobile wireless services, like voice, text and data services to their customers and subscribers wherever they are.

Understanding Mobile Network Operators

Modern telecommunications provide the infrastructure and services that enable mobile and IoT devices to stay connected seamlessly throughout the world. The fundamental elements of MNOs include:

  • Physical network infrastructure management
  • Subscriber or customer management
  • Billing and charging systems
  • Roaming services
  • Wireless networks
  • Standardised cellular services

We delve into an overview of each part of the MNO makeup below:

1. Network Infrastructure Management

A cellular network’s infrastructure consists of a number of key elements, such as Base Station Controllers (BSC) and Mobile Switching Centres (MSC). This system works together to manage a range of activities, including data transmission, network access and device authentication – allowing for rapid and reliable mobile communications and an ever-growing number of IoT devices to function without interruption.

2. Subscriber Management / Cellular Contracts

Mobile Network Operators usually operate a subscription model when charging for access to their services. In general, these contracts are typically 12-24 month contracts, including cellular services like unlimited SMS messaging, an allocated number of voice call minutes and a fixed data plan.

Contracts like this also cover geographic roaming, where a device may connect to a partner MNO abroad.

3. Billing & Charging Systems

MNOs use advanced billing and charging systems to track user usage, manage subscriptions, and ensure accurate billing for services like voice, text, and data.

These digital systems also manage additional charges incurred from exceeding contract limits or roaming internationally. Increasingly, these services are offered to customers digitally via email or direct account access online – moving away from the traditional paper-based billing methods.

4. Roaming Services

When a mobile device moves beyond the range of the MNO’s home country, it connects to a partner MNO that serves the respective region or country. These convenient roaming services facilitate seamless connectivity for travellers across borders but can often incur additional fees, which are automatically managed through the MNO’s billing systems.

5. Wireless Networks

Wireless networks eliminate the need for wired connections to devices, while mobile networks ensure devices stay connected anywhere and anytime.

These cellular networks are a type of wireless network that is distinct from others like WiFi, satellite, Bluetooth, Zigbee, and LoRaWAN. A network such as this is only considered mobile if it supports portable devices and maintains connectivity in various conditions.

6. Standardised Cellular Services

Mobile Network Operators work within standardised network classifications, typically outlined by organisations like 3GPP. Standards like this help consumers understand services available, such as 5G, which is the fifth generation of cellular networks.

For an MNO to offer 5G services, they must have the necessary infrastructure that meet the standards set out by the mobile broadband standard authorities.

Get Cat-M1 Coverage For Your IoT ProjectSoracom provides secure, reliable Cat-M1 coverage for all IoT use cases.

Mobile Network Operators & Internet of Things (IoT)

Mobile Networks Operators offer many benefits to IoT manufacturers as the services MNOs provide allow for reliable, wide-scale wireless coverage. However, IoT devices and applications are often required to function across international borders.

As a result, IoT device providers need to ensure their products and services are available in all marketplaces, not just markets where the wireless carrier has coverage. Unfortunately, it can be challenging to reach this solution working directly with a single MNO.

From their origins in dealing with a focused market, MNOs designed and built their networks to cater for mobile phones. While IoT devices might use similar services, IoT applications typically utilise cellular connectivity differently than smartphones. This can lead to IoT companies negotiating multiple contracts with MNO’s, creating different SKUs for one IoT device, and incurring high roaming fees when customers use the devices outside the MNO’s home network.

IoT Solutions With Multi-IMSI SIM

To overcome these issues, IoT manufacturers have discovered a solution for global connectivity: Multi-IMSI SIM (Subscriber Identity Module) cards. These SIM cards come pre-loaded with multiple subscriber identities, enabling IoT devices to switch identities as needed and select the network with the best available connection.

If your current MNO lacks a roaming agreement with a local network, you can seamlessly switch to another MNO by changing the subscriber identity, ensuring reliable connectivity regardless of location.

Here at Soracom, we provide the solution to the challenges found with non-IoT specialist MNO. Connect with our team of IoT experts today and discover the UK’s most powerful IoT platform for M2M devices.

Learn about: Our complete guide to ESIM Vs IoT SIM Card

What Is The Difference Between an MNO & MVNO?

It’s important to note, there is also a similar acronym to MNO, which is MVNO. This stands for Mobile Virtual Network Operator.

An MNO owns and operates an entire network infrastructure, including cell towers and base stations, along with the core network components. These telecommunications companies hold spectrum licenses, invest heavily in building and maintaining their networks, and provide a full range of services directly to their customers.

In comparison, a Mobile Virtual Network Operator (MVNO) such as Soracom leases access to an MNO’s network without owning any physical telecom infrastructure. MVNOs, including well-known supermarkets or media brands in the UK, focus on marketing, providing customer services and often target niche markets.

In essence, MNOs build and manage the network, while MVNOs use those networks to provide their own branded mobile services.

Get Cat-M1 Coverage For Your IoT ProjectSoracom provides secure, reliable Cat-M1 coverage for all IoT use cases.

Getting Started With MNOs

Are you looking for reliable wireless network coverage for your IoT applications? Here at Soracom, we offer secure, reliable, and affordable IoT connectivity across the UK, Europe, and beyond.

Connect with our team of IoT experts to discuss your project in detail and discover how you can deploy on the UK’s most powerful IoT connectivity platform for M2M devices.

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