Why T-Mobile is expanding its Bobsled VoIP platform

T-Mobile expanded its Bobsled service on Tuesday, bringing free voice calls over the web to landlines and mobiles in the U.S., Canada and Puerto Rico. Calls can be placed from a desktop browser, from Facebook and from mobile devices running either Google Android(s goog) or Apple iOS(s aapl). With limited cellular coverage compared to rivals, the no. 4 carrier in the U.S. is using the web as a strategy to expand its customer base beyond its own network.

So why should a cellular network operator focus on VoIP when its rivals are all dedicated to building faster 4G networks? T-Mobile is essentially ahead of the curve here, although it has relied on HSPA+, not LTE, to boost its network to 42 Mbps. As voice usage declines or simply becomes data on new networks, the carrier is looking to the future. And that future is VoIP, even for mobile voice.

I spoke on the phone with Brad Duea, SVP of Value Added Services for T-Mobile about this, and he shared some recent, relevant data from Informa Telecom & Media. The research firm shows that VoIP penetration in North America is rising fast, with services such as Skype and Google Talk accounting for 20 percent of all voice activities this year. By 2014, that figure is expected to rise to 40 percent. Messaging, too, is going to the web: 3 trillion messages this year with 9 trillion expected in three years. By 2015, IP messaging will surpass traditional cellular messaging.

Duea pointed out that Bobsled “allows us to reach beyond our network coverage and other carriers hardware. We want to power your conversation regardless of device or carrier.” It’s a clever approach that T-Mobile’s rivals aren’t yet following — at least not publicly, nor with as widespread an approach. Rolling out an IP communications platform now sets T-Mobile up as a potential leader in this space.

Of course, free calls don’t generate any revenue. Duea noted three ways to monetize Bobsled in the future. The carrier can make the applications ad-supported; currently there are no ads shown. Dialing out to other international locations could be offered as a value-add service. And T-Mobile may integrate virtual goods or services within Bobsled.

For now, the service is completely free and the mobile apps are available in their respective app stores. Desktop users of Mac OS X and Windows (s msft) can install a browser plug-in for most major browsers: Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome and Safari. The service is also integrated within Facebook so calls can be made to Facebook friends or the phone number listed in a Facebook profile. T-Mobile says it will expand Bobsled to other social network communities in the future, and it will add a phone dial-pad in mobile apps soon.

In addition to voice calls on these platforms, messaging also works across all of them. Voice messages can be recorded and sent to friends. Bobsled supports group chats and cloud texting: Start a messaging conversation on one device, and continue it on another or in the browser. This is key, as consumers don’t want to worry about using a specific device for communication. Much like the desire to watch online video anywhere, anytime on any device, Bobsled brings similar flexibility to voice and messaging.

That’s the crux of the problem that Bobsled intends to solve: seamless communication across multiple devices and even outside networks. At a time when carriers have dug in their heels for years in order to keep customers on their networks, Bobsled is a smart and refreshing approach that goes beyond traditional voice and messaging.