What is a Carrier...What is a Network?
When we refer you to an "Alternative" Network or to a different "Carrier", what are we talking about? This is where to learn the difference among wireless carriers. The difference can be substantial. Some Alternative carriers have millions of customers, and some have only a few thousand.
What is a Carrier?
The major cellular companies are "carriers" because they carry your data and calls across their own network. The other companies we call Alternative carriers are virtual carriers: they carry your account with your plan and phone, but they don't own the equipment that actually carries your calls and data. These Alternative carriers can sell and maintain your phone, and take care of your billing and customer service. These companies are also known as Mobile Virtual Network Operators (MVNO), wholesale carriers, or cellular "re-sellers". Some of these MVNO's can also use networks operated by carriers that are not one of Top 4. Some of the carriers we list as Alternatives are owned by the major carriers themselves. In most cases you won't know which carrier you're using, especially with the companies that use Multiple Networks. The type of wireless device determines whether a CDMA or GSM carrier is used. Some features that are available from the "main" carriers may not be offered by these re-sellers. Conversely, some of the Alternative carriers offer features not available from the main carriers. This is where to look if you hate your carrier but love their network.
What is a Network?
The Network is the physical infrastructure of transmitters, receivers, cell sites, back hauls, switches, and all the equipment needed to connect your calls and data to sources within and outside the cellular framework. The largest wireless carriers own or lease the spectrum used by these networks and hold licenses from the FCC. The network owners are the ones responsible for maintaining and repairing the collection of equipment and connections. When your Alternative carrier tells you repairs are being made, it the main carrier is making the repairs. The 4 largest cellular companies do not carry all of the connections in the US, but do carry the most, and they service coverage all, or almost all of the states in the US. There are dozens of smaller networks owned by various wireless companies who also make their actual network available to these Alternative carriers. In addition, there is at least one network that owns and operates their own wireless infrastructure who leases their service to both the major and Alternative carriers alike.
Who Operates the Networks?
The 3 largest wireless networks that can or do offer coverage in all 50 states: