Speaker Says Four-State Barcode Will Be Mandatory for Automation Discounts

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WASHINGTON -- A postal official said yesterday the 4-state barcode will be required in order to receive automation discounts in 2009.

The announcement, which was made at the quarterly Mailers' Technical Advisory Committee meeting here by Charles E. Bravo, senior vice president, intelligent mail and address quality, for the U.S. Postal Service, was a surprise to many attendees. Until now the four-state barcode was to be used strictly on a voluntary basis.

Smaller mailers are particularly concerned because the costs of updating or retrofitting their systems to meet the needs of printing the new barcode could be cost prohibitive.

"We are aware there is going to be a lot at issue to make this happen, but what we want the mailing industry to think about is moving toward the four-state," Mr. Bravo said. "Does a lot have to happen for this to occur? Yes. And I can tell you we have had several discussions on this issue. But we feel its best to lay out some plans so people can plan for the future."

The four-state barcode lets business mailers track up to 1 billion pieces of mail at a time. The current system can ID about 1 million unique pieces. The barcodes also let mailers more easily request services such as address correction and confirmation of delivery and enable the USPS to process and deliver mail more efficiently, the agency said.

The barcode is the latest offering under the USPS Intelligent Mail program. The postal service expects the program, begun in late 2001, eventually to let customers track every piece of mail from pickup to delivery.

The four-state barcodes use four types of barcode lines instead of the two now used in the Postnet barcode and the Planet Code barcodes.

The term four-state describes the "up" and "down" bars in the barcode: A tall bar, a short bar, an upper half bar and a lower half bar. It holds 31 characters and will be the same length as today's Postnet barcode, but it is taller than the Postnet code.

The four-state code will incorporate the Postnet barcode, which is used for sorting, and the PlanetCode, which mailers apply to letter or flat mail for tracking and other value-added services.

The four-state barcode is the vehicle through which the USPS can offer two new services: OneCode Confirm and OneCode ACS. OneCode Confirm lets mailers use the four-state barcodes to access the agency's Confirm service, which uses barcode technology to provide USPS customers with information about where their letters or flats are as they travel through the mail stream.

OneCode ACS lets mailers use the barcode to access the agency's electronic Address Change Service to obtain move information when someone relocates after a mail piece has entered the mail stream.

Bravo added that the decision to make four-state barcodes mandatory for automation discounts was made in the last two weeks.

"We know our systems will be enabled by the end of next year, and we believe [the four-state barcode] supports the future programs we have talked about, and we think it will enhance service," Mr. Bravo said. "We see this as a huge win-win opportunity. Is it a change? Yes it's a change. And we are aware some people have the capacity to do this today, and some have more work to do to get here."

Joe Schick, Director of Postal Affairs, Quad/Graphics Inc. said that he was pleased that the agency has given mailers the heads up to plan for any changes, and that the updates to his equipment may just be a cost of doing business.

"But, there are still the questions as to whether all of the printers in the industry can print a high-quality four-state barcode," he said. Gene Del Polito, president of the Association for Postal Commerce added, "some of the less sophisticated mailers may have a lot of work ahead of them."

In his presentation, Mr. Bravo also said that the USPS is on track to make the four-state barcode available to mailers beginning Sept. 1. Here is the schedule of when it will be available to mailers:

For letters:

With OneCode Confirm -- all letter mail classes: September 1, 2006

With OneCode ACS -- First Class letters only: September 1, 2006

With OneCode ACS -- Standard Mail: Fall 2007

All letter mail without services: March 1, 2007

For flats:

With OneCode Confirm -- all flat mail classes: Spring 2007

With OneCode ACS -- First Class and Periodical flat mail: Spring 2007

With OneCode ACS -- Standard Mail: Fall 2007

Since the reading technology is different on flats than it is on letters, testing is currently underway with a number of mailers regarding the height of the four-sate barcode of flats. He said a decision will be made by Dec. 1, 2006.

Mr. Bravo added that testing of the four-state barcode on letter mail has been ongoing since February 2005. Since then, the USPS has tested with more than 24.5 million pieces flowing through our processing facilities. Confirm pilot tests by mailers with letter-size mail introduced 2.8 million pieces since August 2005. Companies and organizations involved in the testing were Prudential, American Express, Fingerhut, and the U.S. Census. USPS began testing with flat mail in July 2006, and its first flat mail Confirm pilot test will begin this August.

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