In an electronic age, the letter endures
Where is Rowland Hill when you need him? In the mid-19th century, a time when postal service around the world was expensive and spotty, the British educator reinvented it with up-front delivery charges (the postage stamp) and simplified pricing. Sir Rowland's ideas were so logical and appealing that they eventually became the standard everywhere.Skip to next paragraph
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But that was before the Internet.
Today's postal systems are staring over a precipice. Unless they reinvent themselves, some observers say, they won't last two decades - let alone a century. Can hand-delivered paper survive in the world of e-mail and instant messaging?
Despite ominous trends, the answer, surprisingly, is almost certainly yes.
The death of the letter can be likened to the myth that people wouldn't travel once they could communicate on the Internet, says Paul Saffo, director of The Institute for the Future in Menlo Park, Calif. In reality, he says, "the more you communicate electronically, the more you travel."
The same holds true for letters and packages. "The more you communicate electronically, the more you're going to move physical stuff around," says Mr. Saffo, who has been tapped by the United States Postal Service (USPS) and the private sector for insights into what's going to happen to mail delivery.
To be sure, postal services face big challenges. Private package-delivery firms continue to eat away at generally profitable parcel-post services. E-mail is catching on. People already receive 25 times as much e-mail as letter mail - an estimated 31 billion e-mails a day. That total could double by 2006. Most worrying of all: The volume of letter mail delivered worldwide dropped 2.5 percent in 2002 (the latest figures available) after peaking the year before.
In many ways, the US - which accounts for some 45 percent of the world's mail - is leading the charge into the abyss for postal systems, experts say.
"There are reasonable economic projections that suggest that if no reform legislation is passed that the [US] Postal Service as we know it will not be able to last beyond 2011," says Ben Cooper, executive vice president of the Printing Industries of America, part of the Coalition for a 21st Century Postal Service, a group of more than 150 businesses and associations.
Double-digit rate increases could be requested as early as next year, observers say. Some see the USPS as dangerously close to being sucked into a "death spiral" of ever lower volumes that will trigger ever higher prices. Last year marked the first time since the Postal Service was reorganized in 1970 that first-class mail represented less than half of the total volume.
Unless some kind of changes are made soon, even "universal service" - the idea that every American with an address can get mail - is "in jeopardy," Postmaster General John Potter told a congressional hearing earlier this year. Even the most optimistic USPS projections show first-class mail volume dropping from 102.4 billion pieces in 2002 to 100 billion in 2008. At the same time, the number of addresses that USPS must deliver to increases each year by 1.5 million to 1.7 million.