Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin Martin last week told Congress he will ask his colleagues during the next month to require voice-over-IP companies to provide emergency-calling service to customers through traditional 911 systems, a move that would be applauded by public-safety entities nationwide.

On the surface, Martin's testimony is a stark contrast to the FCC's position five months ago, when the commission's rulemakings seemed to be focused on ensuring that the VoIP industry would not be subject to bothersome regulations such as 911.

But such a strategy is no longer practical after the Houston teen Joyce Johns was unable to call for emergency assistance from her family's Vonage phone in February, leading to lawsuit filed by the Texas Attorney General against Vonage. Further pressure to take action came from the Canadian regulatory agency's decision earlier this month to require VoIP companies offering "fixed" service to provide 911 service by the summer.

With more than 500,000 subscribers to "virtual" VoIP providers--companies that do not own their own networks--it's time for the FCC make a decision on this important communications-related matter that affects consumer safety. Where the commission places the burden of providing 911 may determine the success of the plan and impact the future of voice competition.

Vonage officials have been outspoken in their assertion that their company can provide E-911 service--emergency calls connecting directly to a public-safety answering point (PSAP) dispatcher with location information--if it is given access to the selective routers, which typically are owned by rival incumbent phone carriers.

Vonage already has cut deals with two of the four RBOCs to secure selective-router access, and most believe similar agreements will be forged with the other RBOCs relatively soon. But, even if Vonage--easily the largest virtual VoIP provider--succeeds in these negotiations, the FCC needs to clarify its position on the matter to address other VoIP companies offering service.

Among the items the FCC needs to address is whether a VoIP provider must become a CLEC or contract with a CLEC to gain access to the 911 system. Doing so could make VoIP providers subject to myriad regulations and costs they have worked desperately to avoid. Meanwhile, such a decision could make the assertion that "voice is just another application riding over a broadband network" seem silly.

But not taking that route could be even more perilous. It's questionable whether the FCC can require incumbent carriers to provide an unregulated entity access to the 911 system, especially in light of recent court rulings limiting the commission's authority regarding the facilities of incumbent phone providers.

Funding could be another sticking point. Vonage says it will pay its fair share into the 911 system in states where it is allowed access to selective routers, but leaving PSAP funding subject to voluntary payments doesn't sound like a wise policy. And, once again, its questionable whether the FCC has the authority to require an unregulated entity--as VoIP providers are today--to make any kind of a payment into the 911 system.

At this point, it might be best for the FCC to take a band-aid approach to the matter in an attempt to reduce the risk of people needlessly dying because they couldn't receive E-911 service when they needed it. At the least, the commission should require incumbent phone companies to give access to the selective routers and dictate that VoIP providers pay for the access. Mandating that 911 be automatically included with any VoIP offering also should be considered.

I don't see any short-term resistance to this approach. After all, VoIP providers need 911 to compete, and incumbent carriers need VoIP competition as they make their case for deregulation on Capitol Hill.

But it needs to be emphasized that such an order would be merely a stopgap. The FCC and lawmakers need to set a long-term course for a new generation of E-911 that will let consumers access the system via any voice, video or data device while determining even the most mobile caller's location.

That's a huge task that promises to carry a large price tag--and the very real possibility that PSAPs may need to consolidate--but the best time to establish this plan of action is during the horse trading that will accompany the Telecom Act rewrite, not after the legislation is passed.

E-mail me at djackson@primediabusiness.com.