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

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Buying a new smartphone sounds easy: Pick a device, grab a protective case, and you're good to go. In reality, there's a bit more to it. Before deciding which phone to buy, you'll need to choose a mobile carrier-which, confusingly, isn't the same thing as a mobile network. So what is a mobile carrier and how do you choose the right one for your needs?

Optimum Mobile is here to help. Read on to understand the differences between mobile carriers and mobile networks, how to choose a network carrier, and discover the meanings behind some other common wireless lingo that you should know before purchasing a new phone. 

What Is a Mobile Carrier?

A mobile carrier, also known as a phone carrier, is a wireless service provider that supplies cellular connectivity to mobile devices, such as smartphones and tablets. Mobile carriers manage the infrastructure required for wireless communication, including cell towers, base stations, and network equipment. Your mobile carrier is the company you pay (usually monthly) for your cell phone service.

Phone carrier examples

There are several major wireless carriers in the United States. The most well-known (and widely used) include:

  • AT&T
  • Verizon
  • T-Mobile

How Do Phone Carriers Work? 

Phone carriers offer wireless communication services to customers through cellular networks. These networks enable voice calls, text messaging, and data transfer for mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets.

Wireless carriers must obtain a radio spectrum license from the United States government to operate in any region of the country. Additionally, they often establish agreements with other carriers to ensure customers can access data (or "roam") when outside the network's coverage area.

Most phone carriers offer a range of plans with different voice, text, and data allowances. Typically, the fewer features you choose, the less your service will cost.

What Is a Mobile Network?

The term “mobile network,” or mobile virtual network operator (MVNO), refers to the technical infrastructure that enables wireless communication between mobile devices and a carrier's core network. 

There are several generations of mobile networks, each with differing speeds, capacities, and capabilities. These generations are often referred to as "G" (generation) networks.

In the USA, the following mobile network generations have been deployed:

  • 2G (Second Generation): Introduced digital voice communication and basic data services.
  • 3G (Third Generation): Enabled higher-speed data transfer, making mobile Internet browsing and video streaming more feasible.
  • 4G (Fourth Generation): Marked a significant leap in data speeds, allowing for seamless multimedia experiences, including HD video streaming.
  • 5G (Fifth Generation): The latest generation offers the highest download speeds and greatest bandwidth yet. 5G is predicted to have 1.7 billion subscribers worldwide by 2025, according to the GSM Association.

What Is the Difference Between a Network and a Carrier?

Carriers and networks are both wireless service providers that supply cellular connectivity to mobile phone users. However, while carriers operate nationwide, mobile networks operate regionally or in niche segments of the population.

Another key difference is that mobile networks do not own the infrastructure needed to transmit signals. Rather, they operate using one or several networks that they lease from licensed operators in the area.

Optimum Mobile, for instance, is a mobile network that uses T-Mobile's infrastructure to provide wireless service to customers. Optimum customers can choose from a range of 5G plans, depending on their needs-from 1GB plans for those who use data sparingly, to the Unlimited Max plan, which offers 50GB premium data. You can explore all of the options here.

Below, we'll further break down the differences between mobile networks and mobile carriers. These are three core distinctions:

Technological advancement

While mobile carriers make decisions about the services and plans they offer to customers, mobile networks are involved in the implementation of evolving technologies (like transitioning from 4G to 5G) to enhance customers’ connectivity and capabilities.

Business operations

Mobile carriers are responsible for marketing, selling plans, and handling customer service, while mobile networks involve the deployment, maintenance, and optimization of the physical and virtual infrastructure.

User experience

Mobile carriers influence the user experience through customer service, competitive pricing, and the offering of different wireless plans. Mobile networks impact it by providing reliable and high-quality wireless connections.

What Are the Different Types of Phone Carriers?

There are a few different types of radio bands phone carriers can use. Two of the widely-used bands that support cellular service are GSM (Global System for Mobiles) and CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access). When you purchase a phone or another wireless device, they'll be equipped to support one of these two frequencies. Understanding the difference between these commonly-used radio bands is important, as it can help you determine which phone carrier is best for your needs.

CDMA vs. GSM

GSM is the more popular of the two frequency bands, with a more significant market share worldwide. Furthermore, with a GSM phone, users can remove their SIM card (the small chip that contains your phone data) and insert it into a new device. This makes it easier to switch between devices, as all of your data is stored on a removable chip, rather than on the device itself. CDMA phones, meanwhile, do not allow for the removal of the SIM card.

Another important distinction is that GSM allows you to make calls and use data simultaneously, whereas CDMA does not. 

GSM and CDMA carriers

In the United States, AT&T and T-Mobile are the only mobile carriers that use the GSM frequency. Verizon and US Cellular, meanwhile, are 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 both GSM and CDMA bands, despite having a CDMA-only network.

How Do I Choose a Network Carrier?

When choosing a network carrier, you'll want to consider several different factors before making your decision. These factors include:

Price

Pricing is one thing to take into account when selecting a phone provider. Each mobile carrier offers a range of services, and the pricing for these will depend on how much data you use and the features you utilize. If money is tight, you might want to look into service providers with more affordable plans.

Payment plans

For a set monthly charge, some mobile carriers provide a plan with an unlimited data allowance. Others provide more adaptable options where you only pay for the features you utilize. If you plan on using lots of data, opting for a carrier with unlimited plans may be your best option.

Additional fees

Some service providers' payment plans involve additional fees. These costs could apply to services like international calling, WiFi hotspots, ringtone subscriptions, and insurance policies. Ask the service provider about any additional costs you could have to pay before signing up for a plan.

Features

Plans from different service providers may include different features. For instance, some phone plans may offer limitless text messages, WiFi hotspot functionality, and data for watching or uploading videos. You may be able to find a service provider with a more basic plan at a lesser price if you don't need these features.

Coverage

The overall region that a carrier network's signal covers is known as coverage. Look for a network that provides good coverage in your neighborhood. If you frequently travel or communicate with people who reside in different locations, you'll want to look for a network with a greater service area (or one that offers international data plans).

Signal quality

The power of a carrier network's signal may be influenced by factors other than coverage. Your call or data quality can be affected by a number of factors, including signal speed, dependability, and network latency.

Contract length

Generally, you'll have to sign a contract before using a carrier network's services. This contract forbids you from changing networks without paying a fee before the contract expires. Consider choosing a carrier network that offers a short contract term or the ability to pay without a contract if you think you might wish to move networks.

What Other Mobile Lingo Should You Know?

  • Mobile Hotspots: A mobile hotspot allows your smartphone to work as a wireless router. Once it's set up, you can "tether" a device (like a tablet) to your phone and use the mobile data network wirelessly. Many phone plans, including all Optimum Mobile plans, allow for the creation of a mobile hotspot..
  • SIM Cards: SIM stands for “subscriber identity module.” A SIM card is a small chip that contains your phone data, such as your phone number and important account details. It’s housed inside your phone but often can be removed and placed into a new device, if needed.

International Roaming: International roaming allows you to use mobile networks in other countries while traveling. Some plans allow for international roaming; others don’t. If you travel frequently, it can be a good idea to choose a mobile carrier that offers the option to turn on international roaming.

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