Mobile Carriers vs. Mobile Networks: What’s the Difference?

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Buying a phone sounds easy, pick a phone, color, case and you're good to go! Well...actually there's a bit more to it. Before deciding between an iPhone or an Android, you should know the difference between a mobile carrier and a mobile network.

You've heard these terms throughout the years from both owning a cell phone and from commercials on TV. But it's time to dive into what they really mean.

Optimum Mobile has the information you need to know about mobile carriers and mobile networks, and any other cell phone lingo you’ll need to understand.

What is the difference between network and carrier?

To be quite honest, mobile carriers and mobile networks aren't incredibly different. The phrases are often used interchangeably, but there is a difference. When that mobile phone bill arrives at the end of the month,you pay the money to a company, which happens to be the mobile carrier or network.

Carriers and networks are wireless service providers that supply cellular connectivity to mobile phone users. There are only a few U.S. mobile carriers that are licensed but there are many mobile networks.

What is a mobile carrier?

A wireless service provider that provides cellular connectivity services to subscribers of mobile phones and tablets is known as a mobile carrier. A mobile carrier is the firm you pay for your cell phone service. Mobile carriers are heavy hitters, top mobile carriers like Verizon and T-Mobile require a radio spectrum license from the U.S. government to operate in any region of the country. There are only a few licensed mobile carriers in the United States, but there are a lot of mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs).

What is a mobile network?

Mobile networks, also known as mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs), don’t own the spectrum or infrastructure needed to transmit. Mobile networks lease from licensed operators in the area. For example, Cricket Wireless is a regional mobile network that is leased under the larger mobile carrier AT&T. Mobile networks operate regionally or in niche segments of the population, while carriers operate nationwide.

What are the different types of cell carriers?

GSM and CDMA carriers are two of the most widely used 2G and 3G radio technologies. Knowing the distinctions between the two will help you, especially if you wish to transfer carriers. Different carriers in the United States employ other technology. AT&T, for example, uses GSM, whereas Verizon uses CDMA.


CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access) and GSM (Global System for Mobiles) are two frequency bands used in wireless technology's second and third generations (2G and 3G).

CDMA operates in packet switching mode, whereas GSM operates in circuit switching mode. The most significant contrast between the two for you as an end-user is that GSM allows you to make calls and use data simultaneously, whereas CDMA does not.

GSM is the more popular of the two, with a more significant market share worldwide. As a result, GSM is better suited to regular travelers. Furthermore, SIM cards allow you to switch between devices by moving your card over easily.

GSM and CDMA carriers

Various carriers in the United States use different bands. AT&T and T-Mobile are the sole GSM carriers. Sprint's former 3G network (now owned by T-Mobile), US Cellular, and Verizon are all CDMA carriers.

The frequency range supported by smartphones offered by respective carriers across the United States is also influenced by the network used. AT&T and T-Mobile, for example, only sell GSM-compatible phones. The lone exception is Verizon, which sells phones that support GSM and CDMA bands despite having a CDMA network.

What other mobile lingo should you know

Mobile Hotspots - Allows your smartphone to work as a router. Once it's set up, you can "tether" a device to your phone and use the mobile data network.

SIM Cards - Subscriber Identity Module; This small chip is from your mobile provider and contains your phone data, such as your phone number and important account details.

GSM Phones - Global System for Mobiles; this type of phone has the ability to remove and insert a SIM card into a new phone. Making it easy to switch between mobile carriers and networks, all of your information and data is on the removable SIM card.

CDMA Phones - Code Division Multiple Access; this type of phone does not have the removable SIM card capability. The carriers identify users based on safelists, the SIM cards are installed into the phones and serve the purpose of connecting to LTE networks or for flexibility when the phone is out of the United States.

International Roaming - Allows you to use mobile networks in other countries, each mobile plan can inform you what countries you can roam in and how much it will cost.

5G Capability - The "G" on your phone stands for generation, as mobile networks upgrade their infrastructure, they unlock new levels of connectivity. So more G's means more data, faster. 5G capability introduces the highest download speeds and greatest bandwidth yet. This next evolutionary step forward is predicted to have 1.7 billion subscribers worldwide by 2025. From a connectivity and data speed standpoint, 5G will be the equivalent of having WiFi all the time.

Figuring out your phone plan and the lingo that surrounds it shouldn't be hard, and Optimum Mobile will help you make it easier every step of the way. Good luck!

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