Mail Versus Email: Who Will Win?

New digital technologies may keep the United States Postal Service alive.

THE GIST

Mailboxes that let users print out documents along with other technological advances may be on the horizon.

The USPS faces mounting losses reaching over $3 billion.

Many countries are looking at ways of integrating electronic and hard copy delivery of packages.

Will email soon replace the letter? Some experts say the writing is on the wall for the friendly local mail carrier even as new forms of digital document delivery are beginning to make inroads.

E-commerce has dealt a big blow to the U.S. Post Office. First-class mailings have dropped by half in the past decade and the agency is losing $25 million a day. It's considering cancelling Saturday and perhaps Friday delivery.

"The very idea of the letter is becoming rapidly extinct," said Jeff Jarvis, author of "Public Parts: How Sharing in the Digital Age Improves the Way We Work and Live" and professor of journalism at the City University of New York. "With the shift of marketing dollars from paper to digital, at the same time with the growth of parcel delivery (by private firms), we're going to see continuing disruption. That changes everything about the postal service."

Congress and the USPS have been at odds over plans by Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe to close 3,700 local post offices and 220 processing plants throughout the country in order to save money. The agency faces mounting losses that reached $3.3 billion at the end of 2011.

While weekend mail service may be in jeopardy, there are alternatives that use a combination of electronic documents and paper delivery, according to Marshall Van Alstyne, a visiting research professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Center for Digital Business. Van Alstyne says that consumers could soon be getting mail delivered to digital, encrypted mailboxes from which they could scan and print out important documents.

There are also verified electronic signature technologies that would allow senders to maintain the privacy of documents, Van Alstyne said. Zumbox and Volly are two websites that consolidate consumers' online bills and offer a secure digital mailbox.

Van Alstyne said that the USPS needs to move into the electronic market if it is to survive.

"There is no institution better positioned than the Post Office to reach everyone in the country," he said.

While the USPS struggles, and members of Congress debate whether to lay off tens of thousands of postal workers, other nations are experimenting with new forms of electronic mail delivery. In Germany, postal customers get packages delivered to a secure, individual parcel box located near subway or train stations. That eliminates home delivery. Residents of one small town in rural Finland only get direct mail service twice a week. But if mail arrives in between, they get an e-mail telling them to pick up their letters at the local post office.

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"Countries are looking at ways of integrating electronic and hard copy delivery of packages," said Teresa Anderson, an assistant director at the General Accountability Office, who wrote a 2011 study on postal reform and new technologies. "Our post (office) and a lot of other posts are trying to figure out what their role is in this new world."

Despite the digital shift, some experts say that delivery of old-fashioned wedding invitations and thank-you notes -- not to mention all those third-class catalogs and coupons -- will remain.

Besides, any move to replace snail mail with email will likely leave behind the approximately one in five Americans, according to the World Bank, who lack regular Internet access or are unable to rely on direct bank deposits of their income, according to USPS spokeswoman Sue Brennan.

"We don't think it's going to happen any time soon," Brennan said. "There's too much mail in the system. And still for only 45 cents you can get your message delivered anywhere in the U.S. and its territories."

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