Internet Pioneer Vint Cerf Imagines the Postal Service of the Future
By Kenneth Corbin
WASHINGTON - You might expect someone who works at Google under the title "chief Internet evangelist" to be a willing author of an obituary for a legacy institution like the U.S. Postal Service.
But Vint Cerf, one of the engineers who developed the original TCP/IP protocols that make the Internet run, is not ready to deliver that eulogy.
Speaking here at the third annual PostalVision 2020 conference, Cerf called the physical delivery of mail that the Postal Service provides "very fundamental to a democratic society."
"It's a national infrastructure just like schools and roads, the water supply, electricity and telecommunications, so I think it's utterly incumbent on all of us ... to figure out how to retain this very, very important infrastructure," Cerf said.
But if Cerf and others take it as a given that the Postal Service should be preserved for the civic benefit it provides, the question of how to make it viable and enduring in the digital age is more vexing.
That line of inquiry - imagining the Postal Service of the future - is a guiding theme of the PostalVision 2020 conference.
"This is about helping the Postal Service, truly," said conference organizer John Callan, executive director at the consultancy Ursa Major Associates.
The agency, which reported $15.9 billion in net losses last year, is facing "an unprecedented and existential crisis" that is not of its own making, Callan said. "We the people are not using the products as much. It's not the fault of the Postal Service."
Cerf and other speakers offered up an array of new product and service lines that the Postal Service could explore, such as serving as the digital delivery service for official government communications, perhaps tapping into the relatively new .post Top Level Domain. Similarly, the Postal Service could leverage its status as one of the most recognizable and trusted brands across the public and private sector - as well as its singularly comprehensive dataset - to offer a suite of secure-identity services, like two-factor authentication or an e-signature product.
"I think that brand is huge," said Linda Abraham, a co-founder of digital metrics firm comScore, where she currently serves as chief marketing officer. "It's iconic."
But even more valuable than the strong branding and generally good will that the Postal Service enjoys is its unrivaled distribution and delivery network, which provides last-mile delivery for private parcel services like FedEx and UPS. Those types of work-sharing arrangements, along with the increase in package volumes - rising largely on the growth of ecommerce - have only brought the value of the Postal Service's infrastructure into sharper relief, even amid the volume declines in First-Class Mail and other products.
"My sense here is that we should be taking advantage of the physical presence of the postal service," Cerf said. "Physical delivery of things is still going to be necessary. I still believe that the facilities investment(s) that have been made to create the Postal Service is going to be hard to reproduce by anybody else, so I still think there is an important role for this last-mile delivery."
In that spirit, the Postal Service has been moving toward novel package-delivery services, and has actually floated the idea of extending deliveries to Sundays, even as the agency is looking to scale down to five-day weekly service for regular mail.
Over the past year, the Postal Service has expanded the trial of its GoPost kiosk service and launched an experimental same-day parcel delivery service in San Francisco.
And Cerf fully credits the Postal Service for its innovations - digital and otherwise - though he laments that the agency has become enmeshed in the partisan political gridlock in Washington, especially now that is has been restructured in such a way that it is expected to run as a self-sustaining enterprise while at once bearing a heavy burden of employee benefit costs under federal law.
"This is not a staid and uncreative operation, and it's been hampered badly by a bunch of rules that make it neither fish nor fowl," Cerf said.
"As nearly as I can tell the Congress is ignoring the problem or exacerbating it," he added, bemoaning the dysfunction and bickering on Capitol Hill. "They're behaving like a bunch of six-year-olds right now, and that's a real problem for the country."
About the author:
Kenneth Corbin is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C. He has written on politics, technology and other subjects since 2007, most recently as the Washington correspondent for InternetNews.com, covering Congress, the White House, the FCC and other regulatory affairs. He can be found on LinkedIn here.
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