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Google Fi, Mint Mobile, Visible: Which wireless networks do smaller providers use?

Smaller wireless carriers often use more popular networks.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

When it comes to picking a wireless provider there are plenty of options beyond AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon. Your cable provider -- particularly if you have Optimum, Comcast's Xfinity or Charter's Spectrum -- has likely tried to get you to move to their mobile service over the last year. You also have smaller players like Mint Mobile, Visible, Boost Mobile and others. 

Here's the not-so-secret twist: These providers don't actually run their own cellular networks, for the most part. Instead, most are what's called MVNOs (or mobile virtual network operators) that partner with the larger carriers and piggyback off of their networks. Let's break down who is partnered with whom and if features like 5G are included. 

Mint Mobile uses T-Mobile

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Ryan Reynolds' cell carrier is actually using T-Mobile's service for its network. 

Is 5G included? Mint has access to T-Mobile's 5G network, which now reaches 300 million people with its low-band service and 150 million people with its faster midband offering. Like T-Mobile, Mint also includes 5G access with all plans so long as you have a 5G phone. 

Google Fi uses T-Mobile, Sprint and US Cellular

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Google's mobile phone service uses an amalgamation of different networks to provide service. Now that T-Mobile and Sprint have merged, it largely uses just T-Mobile as well as US Cellular, with the latter being more of a midwest brand. 

Is 5G included? 5G is included with all Fi plans, but you will need to make sure it works with T-Mobile's 5G network. At the moment that list includes a variety of Android phones, namely recent Samsung Galaxy devices as well the Motorola One Ace 5G, but it does not allow for the iPhone 12 to access 5G on Google Fi. 

Visible uses Verizon

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Visible is a subbrand of Verizon and, as such, runs on its network. 

Is 5G included? Visible plans include access to Verizon's 5G network. This includes Verizon's low-band nationwide network as well as its fastest millimeter-wave service that is available in parts of certain cities. Speeds, even when on the faster flavor of 5G, will be capped at 200 Mbps. 

Boost Mobile uses T-Mobile (for now)

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Boost Mobile, which was spun off to Dish from Sprint as part of the T-Mobile/Sprint merger last year, runs on T-Mobile's network. Dish is in the process of building out its own 5G network and will begin transitioning users in those areas to its service as it becomes available. 

The first city, Las Vegas, is expected to be turned on in the third quarter of the year. As part of the merger, Dish was granted the ability to continue using T-Mobile's network for seven years as it builds out its own network. 

While T-Mobile was expected to be the roaming network, last month Dish announced a new deal with AT&T that will let it roam on the latter's wireless network for 10 years. Although it will still be able to tap into T-Mobile for part of this time, expect to use AT&T's network when not on Dish's own. 

Is 5G included? Boost does not charge extra for accessing 5G. 

US Mobile uses T-Mobile and Verizon

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US Mobile, a newer player in the wireless game, uses a combination of T-Mobile and Verizon.

Is 5G included? US Mobile includes 5G with all of its plans, though whether you are connecting to Verizon or T-Mobile isn't as simple as an option like Google Fi. Whereas that service will automatically switch you to whichever network has the best coverage, US Mobile actually ships you two SIM cards when you sign up. The black SIM card is for Verizon (what the company calls Super LTE + CDMA) while the white SIM card is for T-Mobile (what the company calls GSM). 

Spectrum Mobile uses Verizon 

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Charter's Spectrum Mobile uses Verizon's network for its coverage. 

Is 5G included? Spectrum Mobile includes access to Verizon's 5G networks. Data speeds aren't capped but, per company disclosures, your data may be slowed in busy areas with a lot of network congestion. The company states once the congestion "lessens," however, "your speed will return to normal."

Xfinity Mobile uses Verizon

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Comcast's Xfinity Mobile uses Verizon's network for its coverage. 

Is 5G included? Like Spectrum Mobile, Comcast's offering has access to Verizon's 5G networks. As with that service, data speeds aren't capped but Comcast notes in its disclosure that in busy areas where Verizon's network may be congested Xfinity Mobile customers may see their data slowed until the congestion clears. 

Optimum Mobile (formerly Altice) uses T-Mobile 

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Optimum Mobile (once known as Altice Mobile), which is offered to Optimum and Suddenlink users, uses T-Mobile's network. 

Is 5G included? Optimum Mobile includes 5G with all of its plans, though if you go over your data limit you will be "reduced to 2G speeds" for the remainder of your billing cycle. Optimum sells 1GB, 3GB and unlimited data plans. For the last, your speeds will slow after using more 20GB in a given month.

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