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Automatic Postage System

21st century stamps
  (+3, -1)
(+3, -1)
  [vote for,

The postage stamp is a relic of a bygone era (although arguably this could be said of the postal system itself). Stamps being a physical item that is used to prove payment, they are error prone, costly to handle (as the stamps themselves must be distributed to customers, checked optically, then cancelled mechanically), and inconvenient for users (ever wanted to send a letter but couldn't find a stamp?). In the age of the Intarwebs, this is roughly equivalent to having to crank a handle in order to make a call on your cell phone.

It's high time that the post office moves to a modern system, wherein customers have accounts (prepaid, naturally—I'm sure the post office would be reluctant to give up the float on stamp sales), and send mail by using barcodes that link to their accounts, from which the appropriate postage is deducted. The barcodes would be printed by the end users themselves, and would consist of a unique "Postage ID" number for each piece of mail.

The PID would consist of the following:

—The customer's account number
—A code representing the service desired (first class, book rate, etc.)
—The date and time of postage generation (to guarantee each PID produced by a single device is unique)
—The unique device identifier of the generator (e.g. its MAC address, to guarantee that PIDs generated simultaneously by different devices are unique)
—A 256 bit random number (just to assure that every PID generated is truly unique, even if the date/time is off)

Additionally, each label would contain a cryptographic hash of the above information with the addition of a secret code known only by the user and the post office. To verify that the PID is valid and not fraudulently generated, the post office performs the same hash on the data, and checks that it matches the hash printed on the label.

Unlike current systems for pre-printing postage, the labels incur no charge until they actually enter the postal system. Because of this, labels could be printed en masse ahead of time, or even applied using a handheld device designed to print and apply labels (sort of like a high-tech pricing gun). Anyone in possession of the secret code could generate labels at any time, anywhere, without requiring an Internet connection. Additionally, the PID could serve as a tracking number (or a shorter tracking number could even be baked into the PID, for greater convenience in looking it up later).

(NB: 8th of 7 posted an idea touching on the basic concept some years ago, but I feel this idea is different enough in scope and depth to warrant its own post.)

ytk, Sep 15 2011

Credit where it is due: Personal barcode stamps
(8th of 7) [ytk, Sep 15 2011]

Wikipedia: Franking http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Franking
Frankly my dear, I don't need a stamp. [zen_tom, Sep 15 2011]

Wikipedia: Postage Meter http://en.wikipedia.../wiki/Postage_meter
(Otherwise known as a Franking Machine) [zen_tom, Sep 15 2011]


       Postage stamps are one of those fantastically simple ideas that should be preserved forever. Buy a bit of sticky paper, stick it on your letter and shove it in a post box and then your correspondence will be magically transported to its intended recipient, possibly within just a few hours. Why would I want to give up this system for one where I have to manage an account?
DrBob, Sep 15 2011

       I don't see that this is at all different from the current system, as described in your penultimate paragraph.   

       You say that "the labels have no value until they actually enter the postal system". But, if my workplace prints off a postage label using the current system, it has no value other than to send the item. (And, even if it did have value and was re-sellable in the same way as a stamp, so what? The post-office still gets its money, and someone else uses the label to send an item.)   

       So, what's new with your system?
MaxwellBuchanan, Sep 15 2011

       So now I have to manufacture the crank before I turn the handle? Printing is logistically problematic sometimes.
RayfordSteele, Sep 15 2011

       To be FRANK(-ing machine) I think the idea has merit, it's just that FRANK(-ing machine)LY the whole postage on account thing has already been done, only without all that barcode business. [edit - actually, it looks as though it has been done along with all manner of barcodery]   

       I *do* like the barcode/tracking concept - like DHL but for everything, if only as a means of making all post trackable. I want to be able to look up on the internet and see a list of all the letters I've ever sent, and be able to see which were delivered, and which really were lost in the post.
zen_tom, Sep 15 2011

       //lost in the post//
Meaning "scraped for tender".
calum, Sep 15 2011

       This is not at all like a postage meter. Think of a postage meter like a portable ATM. You can go and withdraw postage from the machine, up to the value stored in the individual machine. The money is deducted from your account at the time of printing. This means that you must know in advance of printing the postage how many items you wish to send, what the cost is for each item, and when you want to send it. You must also have enough money in the meter in order to generate the number of labels you need. This system is more like a checkbook, where the value of each label is indeterminate, and no money is deducted until it is actually processed by the post office. When you write a check, the money isn't deducted from your account immediately. The key difference between this system and a postage meter is that until the item is actually processed by the post office, NO money is deducted.   

       Consider the advantages of this:   

       —You could generate any number of postage labels anywhere, any time, without knowledge of when you want to send the item, how many items you want to send, or even how much they cost to send.
—Unused postage labels could be discarded at no cost.
—Postage labels could be printed directly onto the envelope as part of printing the address.
—You could even have envelopes preprinted with your PID at essentially no extra cost at the time of printing.
—You don't need to use a postage meter to generate postage labels. You don't need to check with the post office before printing them, or even have sufficient money in the account to cover all the labels you print.

       As a practical example, consider a warehouse that sends out items via the postal service. Currently, a picker would have to find the item in the warehouse, then bring it to shipping, where it is weighed and measured to determine appropriate postage, the postage must be applied, and then the item deposited in the mail. Under the proposed system, the picker could generate the mailing and postage labels immediately upon retrieving the item, then deposit it directly in the mail. No postage meter is required, since any device, even a handheld one with no network connection, could generate the appropriate barcode without needing to worry about deducting postage. In fact, each item in the warehouse could have a postage label pre-applied— perhaps even integrated into the packaging—and only the mailing address need be added before shipping.   

       /Why would I want to give up this system for one where I have to manage an account?/   

       You might not, but in a time when the very existence of the USPS is threatened by rising costs and decreasing usage, it makes sense for the post office to cut expenses where possible. One way is by automating the postage system. No need to find, check, and cancel stamps anymore—all of these steps could be done as quickly as an optical reader could find the barcode. Unusually shaped items wouldn't need to be separated out for individual processing.   

       /So now I have to manufacture the crank before I turn the handle? Printing is logistically problematic sometimes./   

       You might still use stamps for hand addressed letters and so on, but for anything where the address is printed —the vast majority of mail sent—the postage label could be printed at the same time, reducing cost and hassle.
ytk, Sep 15 2011

       Ah, OK - I see. So the label is really acting as a sort of "invoice address" so that the sender's prepaid account can be billed?   

       [+], then. But it would be clearer if you said " the labels incur no charge until..." rather than "the labels have no value until...", and also this is pretty much the system used by carriers like Fedex, as far as I know.
MaxwellBuchanan, Sep 15 2011

       Good point—I've made that change.   

       It is indeed similar to the system used by FedEx et al., except that those shipping labels still must be generated by the carrier and are only valid for a specific shipment of a single item to a given destination. These labels can be generated algorithmically by anyone with the appropriate secret code for an account number, and are valid for any shipment regardless of when, how, or to where the item is to be shipped.   

       In fact, this idea could be extended even further. Since the PID would be a unique identifier for a given package, it would be possible to simply relay the shipping information to the post office, avoiding the step of having to print it on the package itself (although the post office would probably have to do so—which could be a service for which they charge an additional fee). Imagine that the PID label is preprinted directly on the packaging for a product manufactured overseas. These items could be ordered by customers, and as the orders are placed, the manufacturer relays the delivery address for a given PID to the post office over the Internet— perhaps even while the goods themselves are still in a cargo container aboard a freight liner being shipped to the destination country. When the products finally arrive and are unloaded, they could be simply deposited directly in the mail with no further handling necessary.
ytk, Sep 15 2011


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