Posts about postal

Why do we need a postal service?

Do we need a Post Office? That is the question I will be asking when I keynote and moderate PostalVision 2020, a one-day conference in Washington on June 15 along with Google’s Vint Cerf and other players and experts from the industry.

The answer to this question is probably yes. But I don’t think it should be answered until we reconsider the delivery industry from the ground up, seeing what is no longer needed and what the market can provide in the digital age.

My involvement with this project came through a side door. John Callan, who organized it, is a respected consultant and veteran in the industry. He read What Would Google Do? and, I’m glad to say, thought it had lessons for his industry. He came to the book because, at another conference, he heard the head of the UK’s Royal Mail ask the question, “What would Google do if it ran the Post Office?” Ruth Goldway, head of the US Postal Regulatory Commission, answered that she thought Google would give everyone a computer and printer (eliminating the cost of delivering now-obsolete correspondence). Callan thought Goldway had read my book. She hadn’t. But he did. So he contacted me; I was intrigued with the speculation, and we’ve been collaborating since.

Since then, I’ve worked with Callan and company on a project for the USPS Office of the Inspector General. And now I’m honored to be part of the event Callan has called in Washington to ask the big strategic questions about the fate of the Postal Service and the industry.

Who should attend? Obviously people in the delivery industry. So should its customers: retailers that ship directly to customers, Amazon, banks, lawyers, and media companies—including advertising agencies and their clients. Companies that are disrupting the industry should be there. That includes, for example, Facebook, which believes it is redefining and replacing the idea of mail; Google; email companies; new transactional and billing companies; telecoms whose bandwidth replaces trucks; even online media and digital agencies (who should understand what would happen if media and advertising become too expensive to deliver by mail). Entrepreneurs who find opportunity in the disruption of the industry should be there, of course. This includes companies that are rethinking such activities as paying bills and merchandising. Plus, of course, government officials and regulators will need to be there.

I intend to set the tone by proposing some obvious but difficult trends (like these for media), starting with this rule: If it can be digital, it will be digital. Anything that can be delivered by bits will have to be because that costs essentially nothing. That will continue to kill first-class mail and as it declines, its subsidy to the rest of the system disappears, which will raise both prices for customers and losses for the USPS. That trend is already accelerating. The USPS’ loss reached $2.6 billion in the first quarter alone, up from $1.9 billion the year before and volume of first-class mail fell by more than 7%. The USPS says it will be insolvent by September.

This is urgent.

Just as I tell newspapers they need to imagine turning off their presses so they discover where their real value lies, I am saying that the delivery industry has to imagine building itself over because it can and must. Or entrepreneurs will. There are countless new efficiencies to take advantage of. We can’t afford not to.

Do we still need the Postal Service’s guarantee of universal delivery? Likely yes, but it’s worth asking whether that obligation to get deliveries to remote outposts should be carried out with offices and trucks owned by the government or through subsidies to private industry. Does the Postal Service have a role to play in and identity (could it be a guarantor?) and security (our mail is protected from warrantless spying but our email so far is not). What are the principles and rights to privacy and security that should govern even private and electronic delivery? What impact does all this have on broadband policy?

There is much to discuss. This is a starting point, to identify the issues, needs, and opportunities and start the discussion around them. I’ve found the challenge fascinating, more than I’d ever have guessed.

If you are remotely connected with delivering messages, transactions, and goods; if you are the disrupted or the disruptor; if you see the opportunity to invest in the arena, I hope you’ll come.

From a cloud to the cloud: How ash kills airmail

The ash cloud over Europe will kill airmail and with it paper documents around the world. It will hasten the decline and death of postal delivery that I foresaw here. It will have an equally profound and permanent impact on other sectors of the economy and society. But let’s just look at the post office.

Right now, it is impossible to get a document to or around Europe with speed. People can’t fly. Mail can’t fly. Even when the air clears, there’ll be diminished faith in the ability of the post office — not to mention FedEx, DHL, and UPS — to make speedy delivery of documents. Any company or agency with an ounce of strategic sense is creating a plan now to convert to digital. It is speedier (instant!) and more certain (guaranteed) and cheaper (free) and even earns green points (no dead trees, no fuel, no fumes). What’s not to love?

On top of that, Google just announced Cloud Print, which will enable Sally in Chicago to print directly to Sarah in London’s printer. This does us the favor of getting rid of the hassle of printer drivers (once compatible printers are built). As Leo Laporte realized on the latest This Week in Google, it also portends the end of that other great hassle: the fax machine (and with it, all tired metaphors about the value of fax networks). With Google Docs and Google Print, who needs the post office or the FedEx bill or the fax machine? We’ll have Iceland to thank for this.

Of course, this shift necessitates other changes. Lawyers will have to accept electronic documents and signatures, for example. Big notebooks of meeting materials will be sent via Google Docs. Designs will be seen on screen if you want to see them soon. I don’t know how much financial documents like checks are still transported rather than scanned but it’s now possible to deposit a check with a picture and then tear it up. What other paper dependencies can fall by the wayside? If they can, they will. Digital=speed. Atoms=slow.

You might ask why the disruption in Europe dictates this change in companies elsewhere. That’s because too many companies are international and once Acme Inc. makes the change for the Munich office, it will need to do likewise for Minneapolis. The long-predicted, never-seen paperless office still doesn’t quite arrive, but we will have offices with less paper.

Photo: JonTandy

So what does this do to the post office? In Europe, it’s going to be deadly expensive. The first-class mail that supports postal services around the world will be bound to shrink. Prices will then have to rise, forcing demand to shrink more.

Meanwhile, without air freight — or with the risk of it disappearing for days, weeks, months, even more — more goods will have to be moved by train and truck, raising demand there and thus raising prices of ground transport for the mail.

What to do about it? As I suggested in my post-postal post, we should imagine a nation in which everyone is connected to the broadband net with the devices necessary to use it: a computer (or lite equivalent). Indeed, the U.K. should have put all its effort into that quest rather than into its horrid Digital Economy bill.

Broadband for all would not only smooth the post-ash transition for businesses and citizens, it would open up so many more opportunities in entrepreneurship, innovation, and education. But that requires our institutions to think an inch past their noses.

Once first-class mail fails in one country and continent, it will domino in other nations because — as we’ve learned from patently obvious AP stories — we’re all interconnected now. So it won’t matter that we aren’t under the ash cloud in the U.S. Its impact will spread here.

When first-class mail declines, the horrendous losses at our U.S. postal service will accelerate, forcing decisions that the government — as is its habit — would like to put off for a few years. There will be less first-class profit to subsidize the delivery of media (another nail in the coffin of magazines) and advertising (another reason to jump to digital) and parcels (opening up more opportunities for private competitors).

The delivery industry could be disrupted as profoundly but much more quickly than media. I’d sell stock in FedEx. If I thought the postal service would collapse, I’d buy it in UPS. I’m not sure about Amazon. You might think that Cisco would be a big winner but I’ll bet on Skype and hope it goes public soon. Of course, short every airline. That sound you hear is dominos falling.

The cloud spreads.

One can make similar predictions about other industries.
* Tourism: Too obvious. I was planning to take my family to Europe this summer. Holding off on booking those tickets.
* Conventions: Also obvious. I’ve been talking to many events lately via Skype. We’ll see more of that.
* Airlines: Screwed even more than they are now.
* Hotels: Itchy.
* Food: Perishable food will be risky to ship to Europe. The local food movement will rejoice. Poor Chilean strawberry farmers not so much. People like me who loathe winter veggies will have to suck it up. Restaurant and grocery prices will rise.
* Oil: Demand will decline. I leave it to others to tell me the geopolitical impact and opportunity.
* Education. Will international student enrollment suffer?
* Defense. The shutdown of Europe’s airspace is already affecting America’s troops in Afghanistan. Want to launch a coup? Pretty good time.
* Globalization. Will companies be less willing to buy companies halfway around the world if they risk not getting there to manage them?

This is all rank speculation, of course. The cloud could disappear this week and be forgotten, a tale for T-shirts (damn, I wish I’d bought mine). But the next time it comes — and this scientist argues with thinner, lighter ice layers, we stand a chance of seeing more eruptions — then there’ll be no excuse for not planning for the worst.

The truth is, this future is coming anyway and, like news and media, every industry and institution should be remaking themselves for it already. The unpronounceable volcano didn’t bring it. The internet did. The ash merely accelerated some the change we’re already seeing; it gives us another reason to go digital and that digital transformation is what’s disrupting the world.

That’s how a cloud will force us into the cloud.


Imagine an America in which everyone has an internet connection, a device to use it, and a printer.

Ruth Goldway, the chairman of the U.S. Postal Regulatory Commission, imagined such a world when the head of the U.K.’s Royal Mail International asked at an industry conference a year ago what Google would do with the Postal Service. Goldway (who hadn’t read my book) replied, “They’d give every household a computer and a printer.” (And I’d add, of course, a broadband connection.)

Goldway was just speculating. As someone who believes in the Postal Service’s universal service obligation, it makes sense that she’d wonder about universal connectivity.

Now — as is my habit — I’ll take it farther — too far — and ask: When we all are connected, do we need a Postal Service? Or what kind of Postal Service do we need? What still needs to be delivered? What are the economics of that delivery — who’s being served and who should pay? Do we still need daily (let alone Saturday) delivery? Do we need to guarantee physical delivery to every address in America? How much could we save? Can the market take over delivery of things while the net takes over delivery of information and communication? What’s the impact on publishing and advertising, on retail, on education?

These are fascinating questions I’ve been tossing back and forth with a new friend, John Callan, a high-level consultant in the delivery industry. He did read my book (and gave Goldway a copy) and came to visit me to talk about the post office in the Google age. Callan, his colleagues, and I are thinking of holding an event to explore these questions and opportunities.

The Postal Service is forecast to lose $7.8 billion in 2010. A USPS presentation here reveals the dynamics: a 17% decline in volume from ’06-’09; a forecast 37% drop in first class ’09-’20. With its universal service obligation, the USPS has to deliver to 150 million addresses a day. With its post offices, it has 36,500 retail locations, more than McDonald’s, Starbucks, Walgreens, and Wal-Mart in the U.S. combined — and it’s not allowed to close offices for economic reasons. Its retiree health benefits alone cost $5 billion a year. Dropping Saturday delivery, as has been proposed, would save $3 billion a year — but that doesn’t solve the problem. Federal Times says the USPS is “officially in a panic” (not a bad thing, I’d say) because it could lose $250 billion in a decade.

The US Postal Service as we know it is, in a word, like much of the rest of the economy disrupted (or, if you prefer, doomed). I think it’s time to ask the radical question: Do we need it?

If all of us are connected, we don’t need the USPS to deliver letters; email is precisely the reason that first class mail is already plummeting. We consumers are, in my view, subsidizing the delivery of advertising because 71% of the USPS margin available to cover its costs comes from first class, only 21% from advertising. Yet in 2009, the USPS delivered an equivalent number of ads vs letters and by 2020 it will deliver far more ads (86 billion ads vs. 53 billion letters, according to the USPS projection). Should an ad-delivery service be the province of a government-anointed entity? I don’t think so.

So let’s zero-base the Postal Services’ services: Once more, information and communication can be handled electronically. Commercial delivery should be handled commercially. There will be an increase in parcel delivery as more and more retail moves online; that’s a profitable business the market should take over. Junk mail should pay full freight — if it is still delivered once mobile becomes a better, more targeted, and more efficient delivery mechanism for coupons and such (and if do-not-mail lists threaten to cut their volume). Magazines? Sorry, but I don’t really want to subsidize their businesses — and besides, tablet triumphalists insist we’ll be using iPads before you know it. Do we need six-day-a-week delivery to every one of 150 million addresses in America then? No; delivery of things is made on an as-ordered basis. What about out-of-the-way addresses (see: Sarah Palin)? Maybe that requires some subsidy, but that would be minimal.

What about the post offices? The USPS presentation shows far lower costs if these services were run through partners (e.g., other retailers), online, and self-service machines.

What about delivery of government paperwork? Well, it’s ludicrous that we’re not given the option to fill out the census online. We are shifting our taxes online.

Mind you, I have nothing against mailmen anymore than I have anything against pressmen. It’s just that they work in antiquated industrial structures and we can find not only efficiency but improvement of service thanks to digital — if we are all connected.

That is why I wish the FCC broadband plan went farther faster (as is happening elsewhere in the world), assuring everyone a high-speed connection quickly. This examination of the Postal Service is just one example of the impact universal connectivity would have on the economy. Some of that impact is painful — lost jobs, severance cost, unused real estate, mothballed trucks. But much of that impact is positive — improved service, reduced costs, reduced environmental impact, new opportunities, new entrepreneurship, new innovation. New companies would emerge to take up the opportunities this change presents, creating new jobs and value.

That’s why I was so impressed with Chairman Goldway’s answer to the WWGD? question: Rather than trying to paddle against the flood, she was at least willing to at least wonder about going with the flow.

I’ll ask: What happens if we spend capital not on money-losing, dying institutions (repeat: $250 billion losses over a decade) but on subsidies to get every American connected? If we fully examine the opportunities that presents, it could have a profound impact on policy, budgeting, and many sectors ofsociety. Let’s model that impact on the economy.

So Callan and company and I would like to get together both incumbents and entrepreneurs to imagine the near-future world of delivery after digital ubiquity. I’d like to continue the discussion with other sectors: newspapers and media, obviously, but also education (how would it change if every child were connected and equipped?); retail; real estate (what happens when all that retail leaves its brick-and-mortar stores?); financial services (why the hell are banks still building branches?); government; and on and on. That is what should inform the policy debate over broadband policy: Let’s map out all the opportunities — for entrepreneurial innovation and growth, for savings, for improvements in life, for export value — and let that inform the resources and speed we put into universal broadband.

What do you think?