The United States Postal Service is in trouble.
After having a banner year in 2006, the Postal Service is now nearing bankruptcy. Congress has set and pushed deadlines further and further on a decision to save the United States Postal Service, which is on life support. The next deadline, August 1st, is when the Postal Service is expected to be unable to pay a mandated $5.5 billion into a retirement fund. The Postal Service plans to lay off 28,000 of its 574,000 person workforce, ending overnight deliveries of first class mail and close 252 of its 461 mailing processing centers and 3,700 local post offices in order to save money. With a forecasted loss of $14.1 billion dollars for next year, the Postal Service and the government needs to start thinking creatively and modern about its future.
The Postal Service – like many other customer service industries operated by the government, such as municipal transit systems – basically operate as a mismanaged monopoly. While the Postal Service has competition with UPS, FedEx, and DHL in package deliveries, the Postal Service is the only industry handling our basic mail annually. This lack of competition allows the Postal Service to not acknowledge their customer base. In previous years, the Postal Service has earned money by raising the price of their stamps and cutting their workforce and services. Had a private corporation announced that they wanted to raise prices and cut their labor force and services, customers would have balked at that concept and retreated to the competition.
But Americans are customers by nature, searching for the most services at the best prices. It is engrained in our capitalist culture. But with the recession and an increasingly technological world, the future of the Postal Service looks dim. In 2006, 213 billion pieces of mail were delivered. It dropped 177 billion three years later, and is projected to drop further to 150 billion pieces of mail in 2020. Private package delivery services are taking customers away from the Postal Service, and email and other electronic correspondences are far more attractive for their speed and price in comparison to basic mail
One thing we cannot do is let the US Postal Service just disappear. Of course, it would be legally difficult for that to happen. Article I, Section 8, Clause 7 of the United States Constitution – the Postal Clause – allows Congress “To establish Post Offices and post Roads”. But even if Congress were to successfully amend the United States Constitution and abolish the Postal Service – laying off its 570,000 employees and perhaps delegating the responsibilities of handling basic mail to private postal delivery services such as FedEx, UPS, or DHL – it would be an utterly foolish endeavor. The Postal Service is in a prime position to influence the future of how we communicate not just nationally, but globally.
The best solution would be for the US Postal Service to modify itself to provide government-issued internet service in addition to its current postal and delivery structure. It is a solution that would generate revenue for the Postal Service, guarantee more jobs for Americans, and make technology a utility as essential as water and electricity in the United States. The “post roads” of today are online, and if the Postal Service can capitalize by creating a low-cost, national Internet Service Provider, the United States would benefit as a whole.
It would operate like any other Internet Service Provider in the United States, allowing customers to register for a United States Postal Service email address, provide them a simple search database that could be powered by a partnership with a private company, and offer customers different internet speed packages at different rates.
Currently, the average national internet speed in the United States is 616 KBps. While this is higher than the global average of 585 KBps, the United States ranks as the 26th fastest nation in the world (South Korea – whose government made national access to broadband internet speed a high priority – is already the fastest at 2,202 KBps, but plans to connect every home in the nation to 1GBps internet service for about $27USD by the end of 2012, 200 times faster than American internet access.). Our average is not low because we lack the technology, but because we lack the competitive streak to do so. A government-run internet service provider could set a higher internet speed as a basic affordable package for Americans who wish to access the Internet, allowing the United States to become more competitive with the rest of the world’s internet speed rates.
This Postal Service internet service provider is not meant to be a “Google-killer” or a replacement for any private internet service providers. In fact, the most affordable package would probably be for users who just need the internet to check their email and do a quick search from time to time. Many cities just have one or two internet service providers, offering average speeds at costly rates. The introduction of a government run internet service provider would entice private internet service providers to thrive and compete with one another, improving and offering higher speeds at reasonable rates.
The Postal Service internet service provider would also not need to establish its own network, at first. The Postal Service could just hitch a ride on existing cable and wi-fi networks, allowing users to access the internet from their homes and businesses, or on their mobile devices in the street. The highest speeds in the country are centered in the Northeast because some internet service providers have turned to fiber optics instead of traditional cable wires because they offer even faster internet speeds. While the government-run Postal Service internet service provider should place installing fiber optics nationally on their agenda, the hope would be that – as internet service providers continue to compete for customers – private companies would install their own fiber optic networks and continue to dream up ways of increasing internet speeds so that one day, the United States could dominate with the fastest speeds on Earth. This fast internet speed is imperative in a world where our commerce, entertainment, communication, education, and networking is just a click away.
A glaring issue some may have with the idea of a government-run internet service provider is the fear that the government would monitor your emails and internet search histories. Therefore, ensuring the privacy of customers must remain a priority. Just as the government should not tear open your mail to read it, so should the government not inspect your emails. The government, in this instance, must run like a business and maintain the same safeguards as any other private internet service provider.
This is an ambitious plan, but a smart investment that could solve a number of problems at the moment. It would also be a change of pace for the United States. While it would be idealistic to which for free high speed internet service in the United States, that would undermine the private businesses that helped to establish our technologically advanced world today. This method of providing an essential government option – like internet service – to the general public at a low cost to spur private competition is the right direction that our economic policy should head in. Americans are customers, and to prevent them from being taken advantage of, there should always be a reliable government option for them to utilize. Make no mistake about it: the US Government, like all capitalist governments, are a unique form of a business, and that’s a positive. It allows private businesses to thrive and innovate while allowing low-income Americans to get the services they should have. For this reason, the US Government needs to start thinking outside of the box in order to ensure that any service that a citizen pays for in the United States is the best they can receive.