As a professional used to free-flowing information, emergency room physician Trevor Cummings had a bit of a problem earlier this year when he was trying to make calls from his cell phone at local hospitals.
He often couldn't get good reception when using his phone to make routine, non-emergency calls, and the use of cell phones is prohibited in most areas of hospitals because "it interferes with the equipment," says Cummings, 30.
Enter a small company called MidwestSIP that was launched by a couple of local entrepreneurs last year to harness the power of the Internet to transmit voice conversations. Using MidwestSIP's application for smartphones, Cummings was able to link with the hospital's wireless Internet system and make clear calls when he needed.
Cummings has been so impressed with the application that he has even lobbied Spectrum Health to install MidwestSIP's VoIP system throughout the hospital. He also intends to use the local startup's system next year when he travels in Europe as a way to cut the cost of long-distance calling.
Jason Brown, the founder of MidwestSIP, says the voice over Internet protocol system – commonly referred to as VoIP – can even turn iPod Touches and iPads into calling devices.
"It's really a paradigm shift in the technology industry, so we're spending quite a bit of time on education," says Brown, 39. "But there has been a major disruption in telecom in West Michigan and we're prepared to take advantage of it." MidwestSIP has just introduced VoIP applications for Apple products, following its earlier launch of applications for Android and BlackBerry phones.
Though international interest has been generated by the promotion of the free mobile applications, business VoIP services are the bread and butter for MidwestSIP, says Brown, a Grand Rapids native. The two-employee company doesn't employ a traditional sales force, instead relying on referrals from commissioned sales agents from Telegration to promote their solution to their clients.
Brown has watched the demand for VoIP grow since it was introduced in the late 1990s. While he was employed in sales with US Signal, he realized that although there were solutions for large corporations, smaller businesses were often left in the dust.
"Our customers would ask us about VoIP providers, and I couldn't give them an answer because we only sold data at US Signal," says Brown. "I saw a niche so I left and started my own company."
Since VoIP allows callers to connect across Internet lines instead of the traditional landline and cell phone systems, the mobile applications offer an inexpensive pay-as-you-go solution to connect voice calls over Wi-Fi, Brown says. First, it lets people make calls without using their plan minutes. The quality of the mobile call depends on the reliability of the wireless network connection rather than the strength of a cellular signal.
Brown has been fascinated with the latest technological developments since he began managing his father's Grand Rapids computer store after graduating from Ferris State University in 1992. After the store closed, he started an Internet service provider that catered to small businesses before selling the company in 2002. He worked in network implementation at Intelepeer before joining US Signal and ultimately deciding to begin a company on his own terms.
Brown brought in Chip Engelhard, 42, to run the financial and operational aspects of the business, while he focuses on developing, troubleshooting and communicating the technology side.
"Chip has a financial background and I'm more technical," says Brown. "We've been able to lean on each other and grow together and put that focus on the business so it does the same."
Before coming on board as MidwestSIP's director of sales, Engelhard worked for several startups in banking, mortgage and real estate. He also held a position with a digital photography website, which allowed him to travel to 55 countries in 18 months in search of events to photograph for the website. With his background in international travel, Engelhard immediately recognized the potential for a mobile VoIP application.
"They didn't have VoIP back then, and the only option for me was a calling card," he says. "Now you can sit in a café in Paris with your mobile handset, connect with Wi-Fi, bring our app up and dial home for pennies on the dollar."
Jimmy Le, a Grand Rapids resident who serves as a senior field technician for Macy's Systems and Technology by day and Social Dragon by night, is sold on MidwestSIP's system.
"I need to be connected to my clients at all times and sometimes in the cities I go to there's no coverage," says Le, 30. "To be able to connect to my clients through a wireless hotspot is great. It's a wired world and people need to be connected."
"We assess the needs of each business and create a tailored product because we know that every business is different," says Engelhard. "A lot of the big carriers just have one size solution so businesses are either paying for too much or are underserved. A lot of the small to medium sized businesses have been neglected."
Engelhard says businesses with global offices will benefit the most, with cost savings of up to 75 percent on their monthly phone bills. VoIP calls between phones with the MidwestSIP application on the same network are free – including international calls.
"The big carriers don't want to communicate this because they're making a lot of money on international calls," says Engelhard.
The majority of the dozen corporate clients the company works with are in West Michigan, but MidwestSIP is poised to offer VoIP to customers outside of the state. As they continue to grow, Engelhard sees video communication as an area where they will excel as more companies embrace the technology.
"Video apps are being introduced aggressively by almost every major phone system and hardware provider, and MidwestSIP already has the means to deliver these applications," says Engelhard, who says that this will be useful for businesses that rely on video conferencing.
But because VoIP technology is relatively new, Brown and Engelhard are sticking to basics for now, focusing on educating people on the benefits.
Kelly Quintanilla is a freelance writer born, raised and living in Grand Rapids.
Jason Brown, Chip Engelhard, and Jimmy Le
Chip Engelhard (2)
Jimmy Le (2)
Photographs by Brian Kelly -All Rights Reserved