The tricks of the virtual mobile networks

Conversation overheard on the train: three people, one obviously the team’s self-appointed tech guru who was proffering opinions on how to speed up PCs, whether to use cheap inkjet cartridges and the like. His answers were mostly spot on, until someone asked him about mobile networks.

The tricks of the virtual mobile networks

The question was along these lines: “When I do a manual network search I see only the main networks such as O2 and Orange. My phone’s actually on Virgin but that never shows up in the search. Yet when I do an automatic network selection my phone connects correctly to Virgin. How can it connect to a network that isn’t there?” At this point our guru did what many gurus do when they don’t know the answer: he made something up.

If you pick up a cheap PAYG phone with your weekly shop at Tesco and then try putting your O2 SIM card in it, it won’t work

Apparently, Virgin’s network doesn’t show up “because it’s one of the ‘hidden’ networks. It’s like when you hide the name of your Wi-Fi at home to stop hackers seeing it. All the recent networks are doing it.”

Even though his technical skills failed him, I’d have to give him a nine out of ten for his mastery of fiction. He delivered this fable in a totally believable way, backing it up with that Wi-Fi SSID-hiding comparison.

His answer was complete hogwash, of course. The reason Virgin doesn’t show up in a manual scan is because the company doesn’t have a mobile network. It’s what’s known as a mobile virtual network operator, or MVNO, which means that Virgin Mobile doesn’t have a mobile frequency holder’s licence, nor any GSM or 3G spectrum of its own. Nor does it own any masts or other infrastructure.

Instead, it rides on the back of T-Mobile’s network, with T-Mobile providing the network access and Virgin handling the sales, customer service and billing.

Virgin and T-Mobile invented the MVNO concept, and if you believe certain news sources, the idea was conceived by Richard Branson himself. As well as being the first MVNO, Virgin Mobile remains, so I believe, the largest MVNO in the world, with more than four million customers. There are now hundreds of MVNOs worldwide, but here in the UK the main ones you’ll come across, apart from Virgin, are the supermarkets’ own-brand networks such as Tesco and Asda.

By discovering which physical network underlies your virtual mobile operator, you can start to make an informed choice based on what you know about reception where you live, work and play. If there’s a rubbish Vodafone signal at home, then steer clear of Asda or BT Mobile, for example. You’ll also find some interesting effects concerning phones being locked to particular networks. In general, MVNO-supplied phones will have a more stringent lock than those supplied by the main networks themselves.

Consider O2 and Tesco as an example. If you pick up a cheap PAYG phone with your weekly shop at Tesco and then try putting your O2 SIM card in it, it won’t work. But do it the other way round, by putting a Tesco SIM into an O2-branded phone, and you’ll be fine.

Likewise, a Virgin SIM will work in a T-Mobile phone but not the other way round. It’s useful to know tricks such as this if you want to pass hand-me-down phones on to your kids or other family members.

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