Postal Service mulls digital mailbox service

Monday - 11/21/2011, 12:40pm EST

Bruce Marsh, Postal Service Risk Analysis Research Center

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By Jack Moore
Federal News Radio

The Postal Service has transitioned from the days of horseback delivery to air mail. Now, as snail-mail volume continues to decrease, USPS is considering another frontier: email.

The Postal Service Inspector General's Office issued a white paper last week presenting the case for an email service called "eMailbox" and a highly secure data storage service known as eLockbox.

The white paper called the online services a "natural extension of the Postal Service's role in the physical world," that would help to provide "the critical underpinning" for the development of other digital applications.

Bruce Marsh, the manager of the the IG office's General Risk Analysis Center, said the proposal was driven by the potential needs of both federal agencies and consumers.

"If you look at the shortcomings of the digital world today, a lot of consumers — a lot of customers of the Postal Service — have concerns about privacy, security and, in particular, about identity verification," Marsh said in an interview on the Federal Drive with Tom Temin and Amy Morris.

The needs that consumers align with the Postal Service's strengths, Marsh added, noting USPS' long history as a "trusted intermediary."

"That postmark is very valuable," he said. "There's really no other agency that has the kind of organization that has the critical mass that the Postal Service has."

Here's how the Postal Service envisions the service working: Users would sign up for their digital mailbox online and receive a confirmation number, which would be verified by an in-person visit to a Post Office branch.

The eMailbox would be tied to a physical address, but users could still control what goes where.

"You may want to get your coupons from Joe's Pizza Shop ... physically in your mailbox, while you want to receive all of your statements from your cable company, from your phone company online in your eMailbox," Marsh said.

The digital mailbox wouldn't replace traditional mailboxes and mail delivery but would expand the range of services from which to choose.

So, why hasn't USPS jumped in the digital waters before?

The Postal Service was actually "way ahead of the game," Marsh said. In the late 1990s it partnered with top telecommunications and IT companies to develop a suite of online services, including an early version of an online mailbox.

But Postal executives didn't think the market was "mature enough," he added and the project was shelved.

Now, given the Postal Service's dire financial situation, partnerships with technology companies — many of them recent startups — could represent a fresh opportunity, Marsh said.

Marsh emphasized the white paper was not an audit and contains no prescriptions, only recommendations. USPS has been studying possible digital options of late, and he said the white paper could help guide those efforts.

But it's clear the Post Office has some catching up to do. A renewed digital strategy could help zero in on a younger population who are more comfortable clicking "send" than addressing an envelope.

"Those younger generations don't know anything about the Postal Service," Marsh said. "And this is a way to get them into the network and using these alternative-access channels."