UK Postal Service Launches Online Mail Service

BOSTON (06/01/2000) - The Royal Mail, the United Kingdom's postal service, is starting to offer its corporate customers a newfangled way to get their paper mail: Employees at the Royal Mail will open letters for companies and then transmit them electronically to the intended destination.

Deployed on a full-scale basis yesterday, the new Physical to Electronic (PTE) mail service lets businesses have their regular mail - anything from general correspondence to application forms, customer surveys and purchase orders - sent directly to their computer systems via the Internet or dedicated networks.

Not everything can be delivered electronically, though. For example, the Royal Mail said it won't scan in checks and will physically deliver them to companies if they get included in envelopes that are opened. It also won't open envelopes that are marked confidential, a spokesman said.

The Royal Mail is using e-commerce software developed by San Jose-based ActionPoint Inc. to transform the physical mail into electronic data. About 20 companies in the U.K. have signed on to use the PTE service so far and already are receiving a combined total of hundreds of thousands of documents electronically per day, according to the Royal Mail. The early users include companies in the financial services, telecommunications and pensions and insurance industries.

Kimra Hawley, ActionPoint's CEO, said postal services in Germany and other countries are looking at developing similar electronic mail delivery systems.

But the U.S. Postal Service - which earlier this month launched a new online mailing service that lets businesses and individuals post letters and documents on a Web site that can be accessed by the intended recipients-- said it has no plans to follow that up with a PTE-like offering.

And it has legal reasons to refrain from doing so. "Opening U.S. mail by anyone (other than the addressee) is a federal offense," said Sue Brennan, a USPS spokeswoman.

It's also a crime to tamper with mail in the U.K., said Robin Speight, the Royal Mail's PTE project manager. But the companies that want to use the new service have to sign an agreement giving the Royal Mail permission to open their mail, Speight added. This, he said, protects the postal service from criminal prosecution.

According to Speight, the PTE service should reduce the cost of processing mail for users because incoming mail is delivered in useable file formats that are compatible with their internal systems. In addition, companies that use the service should be able to "respond more quickly to customers and trading partners," he said.

The mortgages division of Barclays PLC, a London-based financial services group, is one of the early users of the new service.

In a statement released by the Royal Mail, Allison Whitely, a project manager at Barclays Mortgages, said the company has already gained time in two areas.

Scanned documents are now available in its systems by 8 a.m., compared with 9:30 a.m. previously, Whitely said. And having some of the incoming mail presorted by the Royal Mail means that Barclays' mail room staff can complete onsite manual sorting much faster, she added.

In order to participate in the PTE service, companies first must change their mailing addresses to one of the Royal Mail's processing centers in Doncaster or Leicester, England. There, Royal Mail staffers open the mail, scan it, convert it to electronic images and data and then upload those to the participating companies.

Pricing details weren't disclosed. Marc Page, who is leading the PTE initiative for the Royal Mail, said the cost of the service depends on exactly what companies want the postal service to do.

For example, there are different levels of service that users can choose, such as opening and scanning mail using high-speed scanners and delivering it electronically; sorting mail; capturing data and inputting it directly into company databases; and storing information on laser discs or at a particular Web site for later retrieval by customers.

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