MVNOs in Australia: Every provider explained
What is an MVNO?
Maybe you’ve heard the acronym MVNO mentioned in an ACA story about saving on your mobile plan. Maybe you saw the news recently where the ACCC encouraged Australians to compare plans from MVNOs in response to recent mobile plan price increases. Or maybe you’re already signed up to one of Australia’s MVNOs and you just don’t know it. Whatever your reason, you don’t know what an MVNO is and at this point, you’re too afraid to ask. MVNO stands for Mobile Virtual Network Operator.
Okay, new question: what is a Mobile Virtual Network Operator? Glad you asked.
A Mobile Virtual Network Operator (MVNO from this point on) is a mobile service provider that leases phone and data services from network providers, rather than building and supplying the networks themselves. In most cases, MVNOs offer the same mobile service you’d get on the Telstra, Optus or Vodafone network but have fewer overheads to pay and tend to offer cheaper plans as a result.
MVNOs on the Optus and Vodafone networks get complete access to their respective 4G networks (with 5G support slowly making its way to MVNOs too). But most Telstra MVNOs use the Telstra Wholesale Network, a slightly smaller version of Telstra’s market-leading 4G network.
Some examples of popular MVNOs include Circles.Life, Woolworths Mobile and Tangerine Telecom – but there are plenty more.
Here’s a quick look at some of the most popular MVNOs currently operating in Australia.
MVNOs vs Network Providers
There are only three mobile networks in Australia: Telstra, Optus and Vodafone/TPG. You might have heard of them. Every smaller mobile plan provider in Australia or MVNO either piggybacks on one of the three Australian mobile networks or is owned and operated by one of the big three. For example, MATE is an independent NBN provider and MVNO that leases its services from Optus, providing 4G and 5G mobile coverage on the Optus network. Then there are providers like Felix Mobile, an MVNO that is directly owned and operated by TPG/Vodafone.
The MVNO market provides healthy competition and often affordable alternatives to the more recognisable service providers. More recently, the MVNO market has been muddied by sub-brands launched and acquired by the big three.
The situation is comparable to the craft beer war that’s brewing between independent Australian breweries and big multinationals. There are independently brewed craft beers like Six Strings and Stone & Wood that are part of the IBA (Independent Brewers Association) then there are fake craft beers released or acquired (e.g. Furphy and Little Creatures) by corporations like Lion and SAB in a sneaky attempt to capitalise on the trend.
In the world of MVNOs, brands like Felix Mobile, Belong and Gomo are marketed like MVNOs but are actually owned and operated by one of the big three providers. Then there are independent MVNOs like Tangerine Telecom and Aussie Broadband that rely on the networks of the big three but are still privately-owned companies.
After so many new MVNOs and acquisitions, it’s hard to keep track of which providers belong to which network. Here’s a diagram to help explain the relationships between the three networks and Australia’s MVNOs.
Telstra MVNOs, explained
Telstra MVNOs are the most popular in Australia and for a fairly obvious reason: Telstra’s premium network coverage can be expensive. For many Australians living in rural areas, Telstra (or Telstra’s network) is the only viable mobile option. Conveniently, some Telstra MVNOs also happen to offer some of the best value (even compared to Optus and Vodafone MVNOS) but there’s one very small catch: you won’t get access to the complete Telstra 4G network with most MVNOs, rather the Telstra wholesale network.
Is there a significant difference between the Telstra 4GX network and the Telstra wholesale network? Well, yes and no. The Telstra 4GX network is the largest mobile network in Australia, reaching 99.4% of the Australian population.
The Telstra wholesale network is a portion of that network that’s available to MVNOs and it reaches 97.9% of Australians. It’s a small difference in percentages but still somewhere in the ballpark of 380,000 Australians. With that said, the Telstra wholesale network is still larger than the Optus and Vodafone networks. So if you’re covered with Telstra, there’s a strong chance you’ll get reception with a Telstra MVNO. If you’re worried about switching to a Telstra MVNO, you can always check your address in the Telstra wholesale network coverage map for a bit of peace of mind.
There is only one Telstra MVNO that has access to the full Telstra 4GX network, Boost Mobile. Boost isn’t owned by Telstra but the two telcos do have an agreement that gives Boost access to the complete Telstra retail network and some of Telstra’s backend resources (such as customer support).
So on the complete Telstra retail network, you have two options: Telstra or Boost. Over on the Telstra wholesale network, you’ll find a lot more variety. Here’s every Telstra MVNO currently available:
- ALDI Mobile
- Belong (Telstra sub-brand)
- Better Life Mobile
- CMobile Blue
- Tangerine Telecom
- Think Mobile
- Woolworths Mobile
Some of those Telstra MVNOs aren’t just good value on Telstra – providers like Mate, Tangerine Telecom, ALDI Mobile and Woolworths Mobile regularly top our monthly picks of the best SIM-only plans and best prepaid plans available.
Here’s a quick look at some of the most popular plans on the Telstra network this week:
Optus MVNOs, detailed
Unlike Telstra, every Optus MVNO gets access to the complete Optus 4G network. 5G is a bit of a different story but we’ll get to that in a tick. For now, here’s the complete list of Optus MVNOs currently operating:
- Amaysim (acquired by Optus)
- Aussie Broadband
- Catch Connect
- Coles Mobile
- Dodo (owned by Vocus Group)
- Gomo (Optus sub-brand)
- iPrimus (owned by Vocus Group)
- Moose Mobile
- Southern Phone
- Vaya (acquired by Amaysim/Optus)
At the time of writing, the cheapest MVNO available on the Optus network is Moose Mobile, which offers 6GB per month and unlimited calls/text for $9.80 for the first 12 months (after that you pay $15.80 per month). That’s a huge saving compared to the cheapest Optus SIM plan, which costs $45 per month and nets you 20GB per month and unlimited calls/text. If it’s more data you’re after, you can’t really go past Optus MVNO Circles.Life, which offers regular discounts like 100GB for $28 per month for the first 12 months (which switches to $38 per month after the first 12 months).
See how Optus MVNOs stack up below:
TPG/Vodafone MVNOs, exposed!
TPG Telecom (the company that now owns the Vodafone network) also offers unbridled network access to its MVNOs but there’s one funny catch: almost every major MVNO on the Vodafone network is owned by TPG Telecom (except for Kogan Mobile, CMOBILE and a few prepaid providers).
Here’s the list of TPG/Vodafone MVNOs that are still operating:
- CMobile Red
- Felix Mobile (TPG Telecom sub-brand)
- Kogan Mobile
- iiNet (acquired by TPG Telecom)
- Internode (acquired by TPG Telecom)
- Lebara Mobile (acquired by Vodafone/TPG telecom)
- TPG (merged with Vodafone)
You might notice that iiNet and Internode offer almost identical services. That’s because they do. They’re both owned by TPG Telecom and both offer some of the cheapest mobile plans on the network. For example, both Internode and iiNet will give you 8GB per month and unlimited calls/text for $10 per month for the first 6 months (which almost doubles to $19.99 after the first 6 months). Overall, both don’t offer great value once you pass 12 months. Still, it’s a bit more affordable than Vodafone’s cheapest plan, which offers 40GB per month for $40 per month.
Here’s a quick look at some of the most popular SIM-only plans from Vodafone MVNOs:
Pros and cons of going with an MVNO
So yes, MVNOs tend to be a lot cheaper than the big three telcos because they run a much leaner operation but there are a few reasons why you might want to stick with one of the bigs too.
Pro: MVNOs tend to be cheaper
MVNOs aren’t cheaper than Telstra, Optus and Vodafone by default but yes, they typically can charge less for their plans and services because they have far fewer overheads (like infrastructure rollout and maintenance) and smaller customer support costs.
Let’s use Telstra’s SIM-only plans as an example. Telstra’s cheapest Upfront SIM Plan costs $55 per month and gets you 40GB of data (and the usual unlimited calls and text). That’s a lot of data, more than the typical Australian uses every month. If you use a lot less data, Tangerine Telecom offers 3GB of data and unlimited calls and text for $14.90 per month. If you are after more data, you can get the same 40GB through Telstra’s sub-brand Belong for $35 per month (saving you roughly 35% per month). As we discussed above, these MVNOs use the slightly smaller Telstra wholesale network but it’s still a sizable saving. MVNOs are currently feature
Pro: Switching is easier than ever
Even if you do take a leap of faith with a smaller provider you’ve never heard of, most phone plans these days are month-to-month and don’t incur any cancellation or exit fees. You can switch mobile providers in a matter of minutes and number porting (e.g. keeping your phone number) doesn’t take much longer if you’re switching between providers on the same network. Even if you are, you shouldn’t expect to wait any longer than 48 hours for the transfer to be complete.
Pro: Customers love MVNOs
If you take a look at any user review site (like Product Review), you’ll see that independently-owned MVNOs like MATE and Aussie Broadband are some of the highest-rated customers. Customer support and infrastructure is a bit of a double-edged sword. MVNOs only have a fraction of the customer base that Telstra, Optus and Vodafone have. Fewer customers mean fewer problems to solve, fewer mouths to feed etc., so MVNOs don’t need to spend as much on their customer support networks (which is good news for your wallet). Therefore, it’s a little easier for independent MVNOs to manage their customers but it doesn’t always work that way.
Con: Fewer customer support options
The downside to having a smaller customer support system is that some MVNOs don’t offer many customer support avenues. At least not as many options as you would expect from Telstra, Optus or Vodafone. The most obvious support channel you won’t get with most MVNOs is a classic brick and mortar store that you can visit in person. Some people still prefer to talk to someone face to face about their mobile plan or bill, which you just don’t get with MVNOs. With that said, most Telstra, Optus and Vodafone are shop fronts for selling mobile plans and handsets and don’t actually have any backend account privileges; so even if you do visit a store, you’ll still need to talk to a technical support representative over the phone a lot of the time (depending on the issue).
But it’s not just stores. Providers like Gomo and Felix Mobile don’t offer a customer support phone number either. They’re run exclusively online. Everything from signing up to troubleshooting issues is done via their websites or apps (typically with a live chat or Whatsapp messaging service). That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Some people love live chat as a customer support option. But then not every MVNO offers live chat either. This is why it’s important to research your options before signing up.
Con: Few MVNOs offer handsets
Speaking of walking into a store and signing up for a new iPhone, most MVNOs don’t offer phones on a plan, except for a select few. Telstra, Optus and Vodafone typically stock the latest iPhone, Samsung, Google and other popular Android smartphones. Woolworths Mobile is a unique MVNO in that it only offers Samsung handsets and typically for the best price at launch. Then there’s numobile, which offers refurbished smartphones on a plan. And Southern Phone offers a small selection of Samsung phones and seniors handsets.
Providers that sell phone plans
Here are the mobile providers in Australia that offer handsets on a plan:
- Woolworths Mobile
- Southern Phone
And here’s a small selection of popular handsets offered by Australian providers:
Con: Fewer perks
Lastly, most MVNOs don’t offer the same sort of perks that Telstra, Optus and Vodafone do. When you sign up with one of the big three, they will typically sweeten the deal with a variety of perks. Things like cheap cinema tickets, streaming service deals (like Optus Sport), frequent flyer points, discounts on experiences (like concerts) and rewards programs like Telstra Plus.
With that being said, a select few MVNOs sometimes offer better perks. Woolworths Mobile, for example, will give you 10% off your monthly shop (for purchases up to $500). That’s breakfast for some large families and a potential saving of $50 per month (which more or less pays for your phone plan). And if you want to cut down the number of subscriptions you have, MATE offers its mobile customers a free subscription to the music streaming service Tidal.
Final thoughts: Is it worth switching to an MVNO?
Look, if you’re happy with your phone (or purchase your phones outright) and don’t mind shaking things up a bit, we wholeheartedly recommend giving one of the MVNOs listed above a whirl. For the amount of money you can save every month, some cheap movie tickets or a few reward points don’t amount to much. Plus, MVNOs have some of the happiest customers in Australia, according to their user reviews.
While Telstra, Optus and Vodafone still hold the lion’s share of Australian customers, it’s clear from our database’s popularity score that readers are more interested in seeing what the smaller players have got. Optus is the only network provider that ranks in the top 10 most popular plans in our database (supplied by our friends at WhistleOut). The rest of the list is made up of MVNOs.