Carriers & Service Providers—What’s the Difference?


Most people typically use these two terms interchangeably, and though the carrier and the service provider are in some cases one in the same (this is explained later in this post), it’s important to make a distinction between them because they have two different functions.

This article is an attempt to clarify the purpose and function of each entity to avoid any confusion, which could save you a lot of headache when communicating with your phone service.


What Is a Carrier?

A phone carrier is the entity that makes it possible to connect our calls. This is what makes it different from a service provider because a provider cannot provide you with phone service without a carrier to connect your calls.

They are also referred to as the “underlying carrier”, and they rarely interface with the customer—that’s where the service provider comes in. So, what is the actual function of a telephone carrier? If you take the term, “carrier” literally, it helps to understand what they do—they carry the phone number; in other words, the carrier makes a phone number live and active, so that the phone number actually works.

The carrier and service provider working together is an essential relationship, and both are necessary for phone service.


What is a Service Provider?

The phone service provider is the institution we’re all more familiar with. They are the ones who actually sell the service to clients; the service provider is who you have your contract with and offers you various services and features. Basically, they’re the ones who package the product.

To illustrate the difference between the service provider and the carrier, just think about how a passenger train operates. Amtrak, for example, is the organization that sells you a ticket to ride the train, and Amtrak is the name you recognize and remember. This is just like the phone service provider.

But Amtrak could not exist without the railroad on which it travels. Separate companies such as Union Pacific and BNSF own the actual railroads and sell the right to travel on them to companies like Amtrak. This is precisely how the carrier/service provider relationship works—Union Pacific is like the underlying carrier for phone service.


Sometimes They’re the Same

In some cases, the service provider and carrier are the same, and this is because the provider owns its own carrier, like a band who has its own record label. This is the case with the really big companies like AT&T and Comcast; everything is operated in-house because AT&T and Comcast are both the service provider and the underlying carrier.

The superstar is, of course, AT&T because they effectively laid the railroad tracks, built the rail cars, and sell the tickets to ride them, directly to the customer. AT&T was really the pioneer of telecom, who made telephony possible on a mass public scale.


It Helps to Know the Difference

Understanding the difference, and the relationship between service providers and carriers is not simply a novelty. When you get how it works, you can correspond much more effectively with your phone service provider.

Furthermore, knowing that there is an underlying carrier who is actually pulling the strings, you can even attempt to contact them directly for difficult issues, rather than going through a sometimes troublesome service provider. In any case, it’s always better to know how the system actually works.




Stephanie is the Marketing Director at Talkroute and has been featured in Forbes, Inc, and Entrepreneur as a leading authority on business and telecommunications.

Stephanie is also the chief editor and contributing author for the Talkroute blog helping more than 100k entrepreneurs to start, run, and grow their businesses.

StephanieCarriers & Service Providers—What’s the Difference?