Tech firm puts remote workers on better networks

VanBelkum’s 60 years of experience comes into play during pandemic.
Dallas VanBelkum, shown here installing cabling, said effective networks “create different roads for each set of traffic.” Courtesy VanBelkum

As COVID-19-related shutdowns force businesses to pivot toward remote work, the kind of network they are running on becomes a critical — but often overlooked — component of the switch.

Shifting to remote or hybrid work doesn’t start with adding e-commerce and delivery, or even routing incoming calls to employees’ cell phones, but rather it all starts with the network on which companies are running. Enter VanBelkum, a Grand Rapids-based technology company with a unique approach to shifting toward remote work.

“We really wanted to deliver applications — let’s say a working phone — to our clients over the last number of years,” owner Todd VanBelkum said. “What we found was they had terrible networks, so the phone quality was bad … what happens is it’s kind of an afterthought — the applications don’t work. Now troubleshoot and try to help us figure out how to make this work.”

VanBelkum was founded in 1959 by Nick VanBelkum as a dictating machine sales and service organization. His son and current owner of the company, Todd VanBelkum, said his father got into the business at the tail end of the days when voice recording technology was just a wax cylinder.

Over the years, VanBelkum saw radical shifts in communication technology and applications – including voice recording for doctors and attorneys, cassette tapes and compact discs – and VanBelkum continued to evolve and develop new solutions for clients. When Todd VanBelkum joined the company in the ’80s, the company had shifted to phone communications.

Traditionally, VanBelkum has been synonymous with technology, data, phones, video surveillance and more, but recently, the company has focused less on any specific technology and more on taking an existing business practice and moving it to an all-virtual or hybrid world.

“It’s hard to put it into, like, three words,” Todd VanBelkum said. “We’ve got a bit of history.”

Over 60 years later, VanBelkum is still a family operation, with Todd’s son, Dallas VanBelkum, on board for the past couple of years on the physical infrastructure side.

“I’ve just been pushing more on-site install and design — trying to get our name out there before construction starts, instead of coming in last-minute, like IT normally is,” Dallas VanBelkum said.

VanBelkum now has a team of five installers working those larger infrastructure jobs, including cabling, cameras, access control and more.

“In Ada, for instance — bunch of new construction in Ada — they get put up, and there’s no conduit to get to multiple internet providers,” Todd VanBelkum added. “If I’m a business, I can’t just have one internet provider, I have to have a secondary … now after the fact, they’re punching holes in the building to try to get the internet provider into the building. If we’re engaged early, we can engineer all of that.”

To simplify, a network is broken down into five parts. Todd VanBelkum said when people typically think of a network, they only think about the WiFi. While WiFi is part of the network, the other parts include the wiring, the internet service provider (ISP), wireless and electronics like switches and firewalls.

“If any one of those is not working properly, your application could be affected, and you can’t make a phone call or be on a video conference — whatever’s mission critical,” Todd VanBelkum said. “You can’t take pizza orders!”

When it comes to remote work, many times individuals have a poor network at home as well, Dallas VanBelkum said.

“With internet provider modem, all of their devices, like phones, they can bring home and plug in,” Dallas VanBelkum said. “We can do VPN (virtual private network) connections to the main network of the company.”

Todd VanBelkum said the company’s approach is not to sell customers a piece of hardware so much as it is to simply make the network work for them.

“If you reach out to your internet provider, they may only provide you the internet pipe, but they don’t provide any of the pieces that make that thing work,” he said. “Our goal is to – if your customers need to have a voice device or a working device that connects to the resources back at the office, then we would deliver that as a service to them.”

VanBelkum also warns customers about the risks of having a “flat network.” Most businesses think they can plug new devices, like cameras, into an existing network, and everything will just work. This is rarely the case, he said. Plus, it’s likely jeopardizing other, more critical parts of the business if they’re running on a flat network. 

A flat network is a network where all the devices communicating to the world from one premise are talking over one another, often resulting in slower connectivity and poor security. Many ransomware attacks happen because a low-security device on a network was hacked, allowing the hacker access to the entire network.

“We can take the devices on your network — say, your phones or other low-security devices — and actually segment each thing based on their function,” Dallas VanBelkum said. “It’s just creating different roads for each set of traffic … now those things can’t communicate with each other, so if you had a fish tank thermometer on your network that was easy to hack, you can’t get in through that to hack some other device on the network.”

Todd VanBelkum said his company has the advantage of decades of experience trying to make phones run on a network, which he said is the hardest thing to make run properly on a network. And the company leverages that experience to software programming.

“With phones and video conferencing, it’s real time, so if you lose some information during a video call, you’re going to have some problems,” he said. “Voice takes priority, so we’re going to give it the first pathway out and back in … we did phones, now VPN tunnels? That’s easy.”

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