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USPS Customers Must Switch to Electronic Postage Meters by March 31

The U.S. Postal Service's deadline for small companies to switch from low-speed mechanical meters to electronic or digital ones is March 31.

In 1996, the USPS established a schedule for phasing out mechanical postage meters in an effort to prevent postal meter tampering and misuse, which cause an estimated loss of $100 million annually, according to data from the Government Accounting Office.

Under the plan, the USPS instructed all postage meter manufactures to stop placement of any new mechanical meters by June 1, 1996. On March 31, 1997, letter shops and others who process mail for a fee or provide metering and mailing services were told that they had to phase out their mechanical meters by March 31, 1997. Mailers using high-speed mechanical meters, which imprint 45 or more mail pieces per minute and operate on a mailing machine base, had to convert to electronic postage meters by Dec. 31 of last year. And, finally, by March 31 of this year, all users of low-speed meters must convert.

In related news, Pitney Bowes, Stamford CT, on March 8 received USPS approval to begin phase two beta testing of ClickStamp, the company's PC-based postage solution that allows users to print a digital stamp directly onto envelopes using a common ink jet or laser printer.

In order to pass the first phase of the Information Based Indicia program, vendors participating in the program must demonstrate operational stability of their products or services, and they must be tested by at least 20 customers in the Washington, DC, area. To pass phase two, vendors must demonstrate financial integrity, and each product or service must be tested by 500 customers in Washington, DC, and California. In phase three, the USPS reviews the security and architecture of products or services, and each one is tested by 1,500 customers in Washington, DC, and California. Each phase lasts approximately 90 days.

Other companies that are part of the IBI program include E-Stamp, Palo Alto, CA; Stamps.com, Santa Monica, CA; and Neopost, Hayward, CA.

Pitney Bowes has already begun testing its product to more than 500 customers, which it solicited and signed up via its Web page and through an e-mail marketing campaign.

Pending USPS' approval, ClickStamp probably will have a limited launch in the fourth quarter of this year and a national launch by the beginning of next year, according to Patrick Brand, vice president of marketing for Pitney Bowes Office Direct.

While pricing has not yet been set for ClickStamp, Brand said it will cost under $10 a month, and there may be an up-front charge for the hardware and software that will cost under $100.

Brand also said that ClickStamp Online, a totally Internet-based system is in alpha testing right now and should proceed into phase one beta shortly. The only other company with a purely online solution in the IBI program is Stamps.com, which is in phase two beta right now.

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