Companies such as Consumer Cellular are known as mobile virtual network operators, or MVNOs. Essentially they’re marketing and customer service operations, leasing network capacity from the Big Four U.S. carriers and reselling it under their own brands. Switching carriers typically saves customers at least $20 a month (some base their charges on use), and MVNOs often target niche audiences—seniors, kids, immigrants.
Years ago, the iPhone killed a lot of these companies, which couldn’t keep up with consumer demand for increasingly data-hungry smartphones. Times have changed: It’s a lot cheaper and easier to run an MVNO than it used to be, and more customers are seeking an alternative to the Verizons and AT&Ts of the world. MVNOs account for 36 million (1 in 10) U.S. wireless subscriptions, estimates researcher Strategy Analytics, roughly double their 2009 numbers. During that time, subscriptions at the Big Four rose 28 percent.