Boston — Rain, snow, or sleet are just not the issues anymore. As the US Postal Service threads its way toward electronic mail, the challenges instead have come tiptoeing in through a political and legal mine field.
The nagging issues have centered around keeping competition fair in the elbow- jostling telecommunications marketplace.
And now the General Accounting Office has issued a report (Feb. 9) forecasting that electronic mail service and the automation that attends it will cut postal employment to around one-third of its present size.
But at the urging of the business community, which craves Postal Service efficiency, the post office is beginning to emerge into the electronic age.
"We don't want to extend out monopoly into electronic mail," a Postal Service spokesman says warily in explaining recent strides. "We want to complete alongside telecommunications companies."
The first step, beyond the Mailgram, is across the Atlantic by satellite, and it's a halting one.
The Postal Service announced in mid- January that facsimiles can now be sent electronically from New York or Washington to London. They can be delivered with the rest of the mail or picked up an hour after they are sent. But the signals are sent via Toronto, not directly.
A regulatory snarl blocks t he post office from transmitting overseas directly from this country.
the telecommunications companies involved have a joint agreement not to sell their services to middlemen such as the post office, which resell the services to individual customers. And the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) won't let these companies make an exception for the Postal Service.
An FCC official says there has been an internal proposal to require the international carrier companies to drop their resale restrictions.
The next step toward electronic efficiency comes closer to the American home.
RCA was recently awarded a contract to set up an experimental system for mass mailings in 25 cities. Beginning early next year, electronic signals will be printed out as letters at local post offices and delivered in the regular mail.
The idea came from Shell Oil Company which hopes one day to send its monthly credit card billings to customers electronically.
At first, however, RCA's system will only print common messages, such as company reports to stockholders or fund-raising mailings from charity or other non-profit institutions.
According to an RCA study, as much as a third of the country's mail could be sent electronically by 1990.
There is no debate over the point of origination for these messages: They will originate with companies that have a message to mail. The debate is over who carries the signals before they reach their post office destination.
The Postal Service wants businesses with their own telecommunications equipment to be able to transmit directly to post offices. The Postal Rate Commission, however, has been careful to keep private telecommunications networks on an equal competitive footing.
The FCC also is watching. "We have a concern that the post office not use this as an excuse to keep anyone out of the electronic mail business," an official says.
A Postal Service plan now in the laboratory test stage in Maryland may make it faster and cheaper to send a picture of a letter than a letter itself.
Mailing a letter could mean taking it to the local post office where a machine that can "read" characters transmits the information over phones lines at the rate of 10 pages a second to another machine at the receiving end. This mechanical clerk then types the letter out again, folds it, and stuffs it into an enevelope at the rate of four per second, to be delivered.
The concept is similar to the telegram, but mechanized. On a massive scale, the Postal Service thinks it could substantially undercut the cost of a first-class stamp. If tests succeed, the next step is a field test in 3-to-10 citi es, a spokesman says.