U.S. business mailers prepare for 31-digit intelligent mail bar codesBy Bill McAllister Washington Correspondent
There’s a big change ahead for United States business mailers, one that an industry group describes as "both exciting and scary." That’s the way the Association for Postal Commerce describes a proposed change in the address bar codes used by every organization seeking one of the United States Postal Service’s many discounted postage rates. Postmaster General John E. "Jack" Potter has acknowledged that few commercial mailers still pay the 41¢ rate for their first-class letters, so the new bar code means that almost every mailer will have to abandon the bar codes that currently adorn most mail. The Postal Service is planning to make usage of what it calls "intelligent mail" bar codes mandatory by January 2009. Formerly called "four-state barcodes," the new bar codes are going to replace the PostNet and Planet codes that have been part of U.S. mail since 1980. Some big mailers have already begun testing the new bar codes, and Postal Service officials say the results are supporting their claims that the new bar codes will bring major advances to business mail. The Postal Service says that there are so many different codes in use that envelopes are often a mess. Under the current system, as many as four separate codes are being applied to envelopes. An annotated Postal Service illustration showing an envelope under the current system with four separate bar codes is shown in Figure 1. The codes on the envelope are an address change service code, a special service code for certified mail, a Planet code for confirmation service and a PostNet code for sorting. The new bar codes should help clean up envelopes, offering what Postal Service officials called "more real estate" (open space) for printed messages. But the real driver for the new bar code has been a desire, pushed directly by Potter, to help track letters as they move through the mailstream. Since the effort for a new bar
code began in 2002, Potter "As these travel through has been arguing that intel- the postal network and are ligent mail will make mail scanned at key points, the more valuable to business technology enables busimailers. Potter says, "This ness customers to ‘see’ increases the overall value their mail at every step of mail as a business com- — from arrival at the postmunications medium." al facility to processing to The Postal Service says: transportation to delivery. "The centerpiece of the "Everybody wins. With technology is one stan- intelligent mail the entire dardized intelligent bar process is seamless, transcode used on each piece parent and efficient." of mail as well as each mail That’s a big claim, one that container. has many mailers nervous. The reasons for the concern include the cost of new printing gear and a fear that, if they can not make the new system work, all their discounted postage rates will vanish. "Without this bar code, you could be paying up to an extra 9¢ for every piece mailed," said a white paper produced by postage meter giant Pitney Bowes on what is described as "one of the most significant postal changes in years." What the new intelligent mail bar code does is pack a lot more information about the mail than does the current bar code, which carries little more information than ZIP codes or delivery point information that is used to sort mail. The new bar code will be printed above the written address, not below the address, as the current code often is. An annotated Postal Service illustration depicting an envelope using the 31-digit intelligent mail bar code is shown in Figure 2. As described by Pitney Bowes, "the intelligent mail bar code is a heightmodulated bar code that encodes up to 31-digits of mailpiece data into 65 vertical bars. "The code is made up of four distinct symbols, which is why this bar code was once referred to as the 4-state customer bar code." The elements are called the tracker, ascender, descender and full bar, depending on how much of the bar is used. Here’s what the 31 digits will represent: The first two are a bar code identifier, an area Pitney Bowes says will be reserved for future use and will be a standard "00" except for large envelopes or flats.
Continued from page 15 The next three are a service type identifier. For example "040" will represent first class with destination confirmation service. The next six or nine numbers are a mailer I.D.: an identification number that the Postal Service assigns to a mailer. The Postal Service already reports a backlog of applications for these numbers. According to the Association for Postal Commerce, big mailers will get six-digit numbers, and smaller mailers will get nine-digit numbers. The next nine or six digits will be a unique sequence number for each mailpiece. Once used, this number cannot be used for the next 45 days. It will be the key to tracing individual mailpieces in the mailstream. Finally, the new code will have the 11 PostNet digits that are currently in use for routing mail. Potter has made introduction of intelligent mail a cornerstone of his tenure as postmaster general. He has the strong backing of the Postal Service board of governors for this effort, which he says will bring new customers and uses of business mail. Given the continuing decline of first-class mail, the initiative has taken on increased importance as the Postal Service looks to bulk mailers whose mail today constitutes more than half of all mail.
Figure 2. An annotated Postal Service illustration depicting an envelope using the 31-digit intelligent mail bar code.
Figure 1. An annotated Postal Service illustration showing an envelope under the current system with four separate bar codes.