WASHINGTON -- The folks who deliver mail the old-fashioned way want to help you use the Internet to track that Mother's Day card -- or simply e-mail it to Mom's house.
Worried that e-mail and online bill-paying could take a fatal bite out of first-class mail in coming years, the Postal Service is testing a variety of e-services for Americans, including one that would assign virtually everybody an e-mail address.
Customers could be notified by e-mail about an incoming bill or package, which they could then reroute to another street address.
Another service, set to begin a three-year consumer test next month, would allow customers to send e-mails to a post office to be printed and delivered as first-class mail -- much like a service already provided by a private company.
A third program, already available, lets customers pay bills online through the Postal Service's Web site.
Benjamin Franklin, the nation's first postmaster, would be amazed.
Postal Service spokeswoman Sue Brennan called the e-projects "a way for customers to choose how they want to get their correspondence."
The post office predicts that in 2003, first-class mail, now a $35 billion business and its top revenue-producing service, will begin an unprecedented decline at the hands of booming e-mail and online billing services.
Under its own online bill system, the Postal Service charges customers $6 per month to send 20 electronic transactions, or $2 per month and 40 cents apiece for unlimited transactions.
The e-mail-to-paper system would cost about 41 cents per message -- eight cents more than current 33-cent postage.
Under the e-mailbox proposal, virtually every American would be assigned a free e-mail address corresponding to their street address. Customers could simply link the service to any present e-mail address they have, or opt for a special online postal box. Customers could then get an e-mail address using their initials, followed by their nine-digit ZIP code and the last two numbers of their street address -- with "usps.com" tacked at the end.
For instance, Bill Clinton (1600 Pennsylvania Ave., Washington, D.C., 20500-0003) would get the e-mail address: bc20500000300(at)usps.com.
Not the sort of thing you'd rattle off at a cocktail party, but it's tough to replicate.
It's no news that Americans are avid e-mailers. A new study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that more than 90 million people have Internet access. Of those, about 84 million use e-mail regularly, while 16 million have used some sort of online banking service.
But followers of e-commerce had mixed reactions to the postal e-mail proposal.
"They're in catch-up mode," said Donald Heath, president of the nonprofit Internet Society, based in Reston, Va. "It sounds like they're not in touch with the reality of the Internet at this point."
Heath said most people who would use the service already have e-mail -- and that the rest probably wouldn't log on for the tracking service.
"As schemes go, this one isn't bad," said Rob Enderle of Giga Information Group, a Santa Clara, Calif.-based technology research firm. "It absolutely makes sense -- they are in the business of delivering mail, and e-mail is a form of mail. So ignoring that mode is a way of making yourself obsolete."
The Postal Service already waded into the brave new world of e-mail in 1998, when it began testing a kind of certified e-mail service called PostECS, which sends electronic receipts for contracts and other important documents transmitted over the Internet.
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