Post Office – Ahead of Their Time, Yet Dying on the Vine

After hearing about the upcoming postage stamp increase to 44 cents on May 11, I realized that I have already personally witnessed the price of postage stamps nearly triple during my brief lifetime. Then I started wondering why it wasn’t the United States Postal Service (USPS) that evolved with the emerging technologies and extend their “mail” monopoly into the digital realm of the email world. Email has always struck me as having more in common with the usual postage “written word” style mail, rather than telephone, fax, telegraph, or any other kind of past communication options, so it seemed logical to me to wonder about such a thing.

I feel very fortunate to have learned from some great visionary computer and technology teachers in my time, and I can remember hearing them talking of the “future” of digital communications. I recall hearing the conversations of those that were embracing these emerging email technologies, talking in their unusual technical jargon, and thinking to myself that the term “email” had to be some futuristic extension of the USPS mail service &mdash and what the heck was a Hotmail?

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Image: Old Post Office Pavillion, Washington DC by yeowatzup

When I started researching the history of the USPS, I was fascinated to find how they were actually visionaries, looking far ahead and plotting their strategy in anticipation of this coming “future” of electronic messaging communications. A few simple Google searches returned some very interesting news stories from the distant past.

An interesting article that I read, written by Sean Tuffnell in November 1999, stated:

“Even though the USPS’s revenue this year has reached an all-time high, the government sees trouble brewing on the horizon. You see, more bills are being sent and paid electronically over the Internet these days. Combined with their already heated competition from large parcel and express mail companies, these new ‘e-payments’ are expected to cause a significant drop in first-class mail beginning in 2003.”

“In fact, the government expects this trend towards electronic communication and commerce will cost the USPS $17 billion in revenue over the next ten years as first-class mail volume is predicted to peak in 2002 and then decline at an annual rate of 2.5 percent. As first-class mail is currently the core of the USPS’s business, representing 60 percent of its $62 billion in annual revenue, such a decline would likely create severe financial and performance challenges. To make up for the tremendous drop in revenue, the USPS will have to either cut the number of days which mail is delivered, close facilities or raise postal rates by a significant margin.”

It appears that in 1977, the USPS was busy learning all about the inevitable future and opportunities associated with electronic mail and transactions, and estimating the negative financial impact that it could have on their business. After battling with the US Postal Commission, the Department of Justice, many private companies, and the FCC, they actually launched their own electronic mail service known as E-COM in 1981.

This E-COM service allowed their customers to send a one-way, electronic message from a participating post office, and then have it printed out and delivered to the recipient (via regular mail) by another post office at the receiving end. A single E-COM message was priced at 26 cents, and a customer had to send a minimum of 200 messages daily to a single regional post office to use the service. Due to the lack of people and businesses utilizing the high volume service at the time, the USPS was actually said to be losing around $5 per transmission. And since the service was uni-directional, it took 2 days just to receive an error message, which arrived via regular mail. Thus the USPS finally decided to end this service after three years of trying.

There was an internet hoax originating in 1999 stating that the USPS is going to impose a 5 cent surcharge on every email message sent via the internet, claiming that they are losing revenue due to the proliferation of email. This message was cleverly written and cited a bogus Congressman and a Congressional Bill “602P”. Apparently there were many formal statements made from Congress members and USPS representatives in response, claiming that this was indeed a false statement. This hoax apparently duped a lot of internet users back then, but if I read that same message today, considering the current financial state of their industry, I think that it almost sounds logical, legit, and twisted enough for me to believe.

The USPS still didn’t give up hope and continued working on other services to embrace the emerging technologies, and claim their share of the revenue. In 2000, they were exploring options of offering all US residents a service that would route their physical mail to an established email account. Utilizing their database of then approximately 120 million residential addresses, they wanted to link these physical to the electronic addresses. Customers could then request that certain, or all digitally available items, be delivered to their designated email accounts. I don’t believe that this service ever left the ground, but this could have been some of the pioneering groundwork towards the electronic bill paying options that are abundantly available today.

But fast forward to today, and the arrival of yet another stamp increase on the horizon. I still have a supply of stamps worth only 37 cents. This is the price they were in 2002, around the same time that I started mailing much less and emailing much more. Are there any 7 cent stamps out there for me? It looks like they made a few in 1914, but their value is probably worth a little more nowadays. It’s getting closer to the point of using two of these 37 cent stamps, rather than doing the math and applying multiple stamps to hit the 44 cent mark with a combination of 1 cent, 2 cent, and 5 cent stamps—but that’ll probably push my envelope over the weight limit.

Imagine email life without our personal third party accounts, and the interesting targeted ads that come along with them. Instead, we’d be paying the going rate to the USPS for each email, and complaining as they raised the price year after year.