by Joe Shea
August 5, 2010
THE U.S.P.S. NEEDS TO TAKE IT TO THE NEXT LEVEL
BRADENTON, Fla., Aug. 5, 2010 -- Forty-seven years ago, driving a '55 Dodge with three kids working with me on a construction site, I hit a tree going 40 miles per hour and nearly killed myself.
Nonetheless, with a fractured skull and a gaping wound in my chest where the steering wheel had sliced through, and another on my left knee where something had neatly sliced under the patella of my left knee, I staggered out of the car, walked to the door on the quiet residential street that was closest to the tree, pushed open the front door I knew would be open, went to the phone where I knew it would be, and dialed the 5-digit number of the police from memory. Then I went outside and sat on the stoop to wait for them to come.
The next day, a picture on the front page of the Norman Transcript showed my car wrapped around the tree and the caption mentioned my name. It was the third or fourth time my infamous exploits had made headlines. I was just 15 and already famous! I was in the hospital, along with my brother, for two weeks. It was one of many times I narrowly escaped death and terrible injury over the intervening years.
In that sense, my life is a metaphor for the United States Postal Service, where my late beloved Mom once worked. Back when it was the Post Office, it sailed along just fine. Stamps and other rates were cheap, service was faultless, and access was everywhere. The pay was good, no one was "going postal," and it was held in high esteem by the public. Today I still own an expensive autographed portrait of the Roosevelt-era Brain Trust member who headed it at the time.
Today, like me, too, the United States Postal Service is surrounded by rising costs it cannot support. Update, Sept. 4, 2011: The New York Times reported today that the USPS will miss a $5.5-billion bond payment this month and may close down this Winter. It has been partly spun off from the Federal government to become a quasi-private agency that must operate on for-profit rules, and it's running at a deep annual loss so rates are going up once again.
My own postal delivery seems to be hit-or-miss, and my postman delivered my Christmas card from Sen. John Kerry in a mashed-up ball on Jan. 6, 2005. Sometimes my mail appears to have been opened, or least a flap has been lifted enough to be peeked at. Some days none comes. On others, the postman doesn't come. Saturday delivery seems to be an option for carriers, not a requirement. It will soon be standard.
Amid this alarming decline in the quality of service, one thing seems clear: the Internet and email have cut the heart out of the postal service. I listened to a long speech by the current postmaster-general when it ran recently on C-SPAN. The PG was recounting the facts of life: email, private delivery services like DHL, Fed-Ex and UPS have drained away their package business. Revenues are on a steady decline. Something revolutionary has to happen, and happen soon. And I have a not-quite-revolutionary idea.
I believe that the U.S. Postal Service needs to be put into the loop on email and Internet service. It should become the nation's largest provider of email - USPS.us - and then phase in Internet services, as determined by its performance in the marketplace. And, like that email spam that went around years ago, I believe it should charge a very, very little charge for email, and a very reasonable charge for the Internet. Why, and what would be reasonable?
Let's get to the charges and fees first. I think sending email should cost a penny, and Internet service - genuinely high-speed Internet service - should cost us $10 a month. It should come from a new division of the USPS, not a new agency. Under such a plan, I would get a package price - up to 1,000 emails or text messages a month for $5, and 5,000 for another $5. If I just wanted the email service, I could get all the email anyone wants to send to me for free; they would pay a cent to send it. The total coast would be less than $15 a month for problem-free fast Internet access and all the email you actually want.
And what are my expectations? First, I would like to see the quantity of email I receive daily - perhaps 300 a day - cut to a manageable, answerable number of more-or-less desirable mail. I would like a firm guarantee that no email sent to me will contain a virus.
I would like the same guarantee for email containing so-called 409 advance-fee fraud, false notices of lottery winnings and any mail that by virtue of its possession could lead to prosecution, such as kiddie porn and stolen or threatening communications. They should be sent to a "graymail" account where I could review it online without possessing it, and then accept it if I choose.
My current email service providers, Sonic.net and AOL.com, already do their best to stop such mailings, but when a guy sends out a million pieces of spam a day, a lot gets through. When he has to pay $10,000 a day to do it, he'll stop sending that spam to people who are customers of the USPS.
What are the benefits? First, the service would have the backing of the full faith and credit of the United States. If it fails to satisfy me, I would have recourse to my elected officials. If I didn't pay my bill on time, I would get generous terms for late payment or, if I never paid, would get the amount I owe added to my tax bill. And at a penny per email, I would have a bill of about $12.00 a month for both service and email - and that's all I can afford these days. Website hosting and social networking services would be affected only to the extent that they have to receive and send email to USPS customers.
I would be able to get fast Internet service, whether by Wi-Fi, dialup, cable, regional or national broadcast (which is not yet invented) or satellite, anywhere in the continental United States, in Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Virgin Islands and Guam, and in any other country where the signal can be freely received, on my laptop, desktop PC or Mac, mobile phone, any Internet-capable PDA, and my television, for $10 a month. The USPS would enjoy preference for airwaves and bandwidth to maintain its service speeds, and someday might broadcast Internet service from dedicated towers like those that now send out radio and tv programming.
Finally, I would enjoy the highest level of privacy that can be afforded to Internet communications. All email sent and received through the USPS would be encrypted to the same level of expectation I have for the privacy of our regular mail, which despite the apparent occasional peek, remains inviolable under law. Privacy, security, and a cure for spam - that's what I want.
There's an important difference between me and some other people, including, I'm sure, our readers. I do not fear our government. I do not dislike it. I do trust it. I do think that it is trying to do its best for the American people. I think most of our elected officials, even if dishonestly elected in our current campaign financing system, are honest themselves. If you took a truly independent poll that raised no hint of politics, I think you'd find 90 percent of the American people agree with me. I want the safety and reliability off the USPS brought to my life on the Internet, and I think they would like it, too.
As things stand, the USPS is like me in 1963, an accident waiting to happen. It doesn't have to be. The USPS of today can become better than the Post Office of old, trusted, faithful and nearly free. Armed with new tools, new work, new revenues, and for the foreseeable future a new vision of service to the American people, it will succeed.
Joe Shea is founder and Editor-in-Chief of the American Reporter, the first daily newspaper to originate on the Internet. Today marks its 4,000th daily edition.