PC Postage Goes Live

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The U. S. Postal Service announced yesterday the nationwide availability of PC Postage products that allow customers to purchase and print stamps through their personal computers and printers with a click of a mouse.

PC Postage products and services that are approved by the USPS for development and distribution by commercial vendors produce an Information Based Indicia - a two-dimensional (2D) barcode to convey security and mail processing information about the mail piece. The IBI also contains the same human readable information as traditional postage meter indicia. The IBI is printed on an envelope in the upper right hand corner or on a label for an envelope or package, to indicate postage payment.

The program, which is aimed at the small office and home office market and was launched in 1996, allows uses to print the right amount of postage for Standard A Mail, Parcels, First Class Mail, Priority Mail and Express Mail. In addition, the service lets users automatically correct addresses online.

Currently, four companies have been approved by the USPS to offer PC Postage products and services after passing a successful three-phase beta test and evaluation-E-Stamp Corp., San Mateo, CA, Stamps.com, Santa Monica, CA, Neopost, Hayward, CA, and Pitney Bowes, Stamford, CT. E-Stamp and Stamps.com have met the criteria for commercial availability nationwide: These companies have passed all three phases of field-testing in the Pacific area of the US and Washington, DC over a 12-month period.

A key part of the testing involves security issues. The USPS has the capability to scan mail that uses this system to determine if any fraudulent activity is going on.

In addition, the USPS has embedded unique information into every barcode in an effort to detect duplicates to make sure no one is printing counterfeit postage.

"[In some cases], the USPS has discovered that if you have a meter impression on a piece of mail, some folks will make a counterfeit of that, and put that impression on another piece of mail and not pay the postage," said Pam Gibert, USPS' vice president of retail. "In order for that not to occur, each barcode is unique to that piece. If someone were to copy [an indicia] and put it on another piece of mail, we would be able o detect that it is a counterfeit."

If there is a duplicate, Gibert said that this can be noticed immediately, and if there are large numbers of them, "we have means of transmitting that information across our network," she said.

And, Gibert added that the whole construction of the software and hardware products have to meet very rigorous testing. The USPS has hired third-party, non-postal laboratories to help with this testing.

"The reason this has been several years in the making is because our security standards are very rigorous, and it has taken the providers this long to achieve the level of security that we require," said Gibert.

Roy Gordon, program manager, metering technology management, said that "the security standards associated with this program are the most rigorous to date as presented by the [USPS] and we are very proud of the security that these products represent, the rigorous testing that they have gone through, and the subsequent convenience that we can offer the customers because of this security."

Stamps.com, which has been tested by 1,500 customers in CA, DC, and Hawaii, expects to roll-out its Internet Postage system nationally within the next few months, and has already begun converting its current beta test users to its commercial service.

"The U.S. Postal Service approval is a huge opportunity for Stamps.com to take postage into the 21st Century," said Stamps.com CEO John Payne.

Stamps.com's service can be downloaded form its Web site (www.stamps.com), and is designed to integrate seamlessly with existing address books, word processors, and other applications, including Microsoft Word and Outlook. The software is free, but the company charges a 10 percent service fee on postage. Customers must buy at last $10 worth of postage at a time-an amount that carries a $1 service fee. Small business users must pay a maximum of $19.99 per month plus postage.

E-Stamp sells software and a postage storage device so that customers do not have to go online every time they print a stamp. E-Stamp charges $49.99 for the software and the vault, and also a 10 percent fee for postage purchases. The minimum per-purchase fee is $4.99; the maximum $24.99 E-Stamp's system also allows postage to be integrated directly into PC application.

In related news, E-Stamp has accused Pitney Bowes of defrauding the US Patent and Trademark Office and filed counterclaims against the company on July 30, after Pitney Bowes filed a patent infringement suit against them in June.

Pitney Bowes filed the original suit in District Court in Delaware, claiming E-Stamp used Pitney Bowes' technology to develop a method of downloading and printing postage directly from a PC. E-Stamp has countered by claiming that Pitney Bowes defrauded the United States Patent and Trademark Office by failing to disclose important patent information. Also In its counterclaims suit, E-Stamp accused Pitney Bowes of attempting to interfere with E-Stamp partnerships with companies including Microsoft, Yahoo, Compaq, and AOL.

While E-Stamp reportedly denies all of Pitney Bowes' allegations, a spokeswoman for Pitney Bowes said E-Stamp's claims have no merit.

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