Post Office Sees Big Online Opportunity

The U.S. Postal Service recently completed tests of two new services to bring regular mail into the electronic world. The services present new ways for the post office to make money off both printed and electronic mail, though the government is pitching them as equally beneficial to businesses.

Post Office Online consists of two services — Mailing Online and Shipping Online — designed specifically to help the small office and home office market. It will give customers access to postal services, as simple as ordering stamps or as complicated as shipping a load of documents to multiple recipients, over the Internet. The USPS has not yet announced when the services will be available full-time.

Outsourcing Mailing Needs

With Mailing Online, users create a document on their own computer, e-mail the document and their mailing lists to the post office, and pay the post office to print, stuff and mail the document. The USPS subcontracts that work to Vestcom International Inc., which handles printing, folding, binding and labelling. The finished pieces are then mailed using any of the post office’s standard mailing options.

Shipping Online allows businesses to automate their Express Mail and Priority Mail shipping by calculating postage, which can be paid online, preparing shipping labels, scheduling pick-ups and tracking deliveries. The USPS is also working on next-day worldwide delivery of documents sent through its Mailing Online service.

USPS Endorserd E-Couriers

Post ECS is an electronic courier service the USPS argues will lend credibility to e-mail documents by attaching the trusted USPS name. “To serve as an enabler of commerce,” the USPS says on its Web site, “the Postal Service plans to bring e-mail up to the same level of acceptance that hardcopy mail currently enjoys.”

The global service essentially allows users to send standard e-mails through an intermediate server operated by the USPS, where the document receives the USPS’ official time and date stamp, similar to a cancellation on a printed letter, before it is forwarded to its destination.

The United States has been conducting test runs of this service in conjunction with similar programs run by Canada Post, and France’s La Poste. Similar to sending registered mail with return receipts, Post ECS will offer secure transmission, tracking and delivery confirmation through the Internet. Cylink Corporation, of Sunnyvale, California, developed the postmarking system and a “certificate authority” for individuals to use to prove their identity when sending e-mail or other documents over the Internet.

Hurdles Remain

Before it can be launched to the public full-time, Post ECS will have to pass the Postal Rate Commission’s scrutiny. An independent body set up in the 1970s to set prices for stamps and other mailing fees, the PRC ruled last week it will hear a formal complaint by United Parcel Service and the Coalition Against Unfair USPS Competition against the post office this summer. UPS offers a variety of services on its Web site, including scheduling pickups and dropoffs and tracking packages, and it offers shipping services to many online e-commerce businesses.

The complainants charge the post office has conducted its test of Post ECS without authorization from the PRC, and they further argue if and when the service is available full-time to the public, the PRC must ensure Post ECS complies with current rate regulations. The USPS argues its service differs from current print mailing services now regulated by the PRC and therefore does not fall under those rules.

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