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AT&T MVNOs: What are they and which is the best option?

AT&T MVNOs
(Image credit: Robert Alexander/Getty Images)

AT&T MVNOs include a lot of wireless providers you've probably heard of, even if you didn't know that they were an MVNO — or what an MVNO even is.

Put simply, AT&T MVNOs are carriers that use the speeds, coverage and reach of AT&T, allowing them to offer leading coverage to wireless phone customers without developing their own network.

This is by no means unique to AT&T. There are Verizon MVNOs and T-Mobile MVNOs as well. In fact, MVNOs — mobile virtual network operators — handily outnumber the major wireless carriers.

By using another carrier's networks, an MVNO is able to offer lower-cost coverage with the same speed and reach that a major carrier can provide. Go with an AT&T MVNO, and along with the speeds of AT&T. you could get other perks from that specific carrier.

While there aren't anywhere near as many AT&T MVNOs as the number that use Verizon or T-Mobile, you can still find a wide range of cell phone plans, including Consumer Cellular for seniors and Cricket which is a cheap alternative to low-cost carriers like Mint Mobile.

What is an MVNO?

As we said above, MVNO stands for mobile virtual network operator. It describes a phone company that doesn't own a cellular network of its own. Instead, it turns to another larger wireless provide to use its network.

For the most part, an MVNO will feature the same speed and coverage as the parent network, though there's a mighty big exception. The core network — in this instance AT&T — gets priority over everyone else. That means when there is a lot of traffic or the AT&T network is in a peak period, its MVNOs will be slowed down to help ease up AT&T's customer's and allow them priority.

While the lack of prioritization of MVNOs is frustrating, these discount carriers usually offer better cheap cell phone plans and tend to make up the majority of the best prepaid phone plans.

AT&T MVNOs

Compared to Verizon and T-Mobile, there aren't a huge amount of MVNOs that operate under AT&T. Some solely use AT&T and others include AT&T among multiple options.

For example, Net10 is an MVNO that uses AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon. This doesn't mean it uses all four; instead, it will connect to the best network for where you live.

Below is a full list of both MVNOs that solely use AT&T and ones that could be on AT&T:

The best AT&T MVNOs

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Consumer Cellular
Consumer Cellular is an excellent MVNO for seniors. It provides a special discount for AARP members. Even without that discount, you'll find some really affordable cell phone plans. Plus, with Consumer Cellular, you can change your plan to fit your needs as often as you want.

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Cricket
Cricket is a good MVNO for both cheap cell phone plans and family options. It has no annual contracts and the more lines you add, the better the overall value you'll get. In many ways, this makes Cricket a lot like Mint Mobile (though that MVNO uses T-Mobile's network). Be aware that Cricket caps speeds on all its plans, save for its most expensive unlimited option.

Why choose an MVNO over AT&T?

Considering AT&T MVNOs use the same network as AT&T, why not just opt for AT&T instead? There are a few benefits to choosing an MVNO instead but mostly, it's around price.

Because they don't have to run their own networks, MVNOs can charge lower prices for their plans. This means you can get a very affordable price while still holding onto the benefits of AT&T.

The other big benefit is that MVNOs can add their own incentives on top of monthly phone rates. For example, if you sign up for Consumer Cellular, you can get an AARP discount — something AT&T doesn't have. (That's why Consumer Cellular offers some of the best phone plans for seniors.)

However, the biggest issue with MVNOs centers around slower speeds as we mentioned above. When you sign up for an MVNO, you'll potentially be on a throttled network if a lot of people are connecting to AT&T's towers. 

Alex is an editor at Future with a focus on phones and broadband. With an eye on the best prices across both of these areas, Alex is bringing you the must-have bargains right now.