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Imagine that the U.S. Postal Service was in charge of e-mail. Sound absurd? It does to most people-until they realize that it almost happened.

In 1977, when I first came to Washington, DC, I joined the communications policy program of the Aspen Institute, where I was assigned to research how the impending telecommunications revolution would affect postal service. Instead of muddling through backwater, I uncovered a goldmine of plans and policy dilemmas.

The Postal Service had considered electronic mail ever since the invention of the telegraph. The 1845 telegraph line between DC and Baltimore was operated by the Post Office Department, which urged that the government run the telegraph system. A provision in the telegraph legislation of 1866 authorized the government to purchase existing telegraph plants after 1871.

In 1892, Postmaster General John Wanamaker proposed, in effect, a mailgram service: postal telegraph messages would be collected and delivered by the Postal Service, with the long-distance telegraph service provided by private companies under contract to the Postal Service. Wanamaker even suggested that the postal telegraph system might someday offer a facsimile service. None of these proposals made headway, however, because of Western Union’s then-powerful private monopoly with revenues in 1890 of $20 million, which represented one-third of the postal system’s total revenues.

Aside from one brief wartime operation in 1918, the next government experiment with electronic mail delivery occurred in 1959 when the Post Office tested Speed Mail. This was a facsimile experiment between Washington, DC and Chicago in which government agency mail was transmitted using facilities supplied by private telecommunications carriers. Western Union strongly protested, and in 1962 the Kennedy Administration killed the experiment.

But only after 1971, when the U.S. Post Office Department was replaced by the newly-formed U.S. Postal Service (USPS), did the Postal Service look hard at e-mail as an opportunity. The argument for USPS authority in electronic mail service stemmed from the rather broad provisions of the Postal Reform Act of 1970. The act required the Postal Service to “promote modern and efficient operations and [avoid] any practicewhich restricts the user of new equipment or devices which may reduce the cost or improve the quality of postal services…”

The House Subcommittee on Postal Facilities, Mail and Labor Management stated that “In the next few years, postal managers will make vitally important decisions which will determine the direction which the USPS will take when technology in the form of electronic transfer and other advances change the role of the organization.”

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