Features

Speedier snail mail

National | The e-stamp, AT&T's phone, TV, and Net through one wire, and the rise of online consumer activism

Issue: "The new school year," Sept. 11, 1999

Licking the competition
Will the post office become a postscript in the history of communications? Stamps.com on Aug. 9 received permission from the U.S. Postal Service to offer Internet-based postage and soon announced deals with Microsoft, America Online, and Office Depot to market it. This is the first major change in American postage since the postage meter was invented 80 years ago. Those annoying lines for a roll of stamps may soon get shorter. Stamps.com and competitor E-Stamp Corp. offer simple convenience: Go to the Net, buy postage, and print stamps from your printer right onto an envelope or mailing label. The concept has been tested for several months and will take off Sept. 27. The initial target audience is small business and home offices that usually must lick stamps or hit meters. Online postage's backers are pushing its technological simplicity. E-Stamp offers users software and a small, stamp-roll-sized gizmo called an "electronic vault" to store the postage. Customers can buy over the Net up to $500 in postage at once and print out postage whenever they want. Online postage joins bookselling, auctions, bridal registry, and even pizza delivery on the list of basic services that are migrating online. According to Stamps.com, only 1.7 million postage meters are used in the United States today. The two California stamp startups hope to leapfrog the old technology the way CD-ROM encyclopedia buried the print sets. Pitney Bowes isn't lying down to watch its $4.2 billion business slip away. They're now selling Personal Post, a meter that refills itself in 30 seconds using a phone line. Stamps.com and E-Stamp may help USPS by making Net customers more likely to use snail mail. But online postage may have come too late to save the Postal Service from email and fax machines. More and more people send notes, invitations, and invoices via email. Electronic billing is all the rage as companies try to cut high paper costs. And for many, even overnight delivery is too long. So in a few years, will there be as much print mail to send? TCI: Total Control of the Internet?
Ta ta, TCI? America's cable TV behemoth is vanishing into a super-charged AT&T that wants to offer you everything from local phone service to Internet accounts. The old Tele-Communications, Inc. name is changing to "AT&T Broadband & Internet Services," and the former Ma Bell is rising up to grab a new customer base. AT&T will become America's largest cable provider if it succeeds in buying the fourth-largest player, MediaOne, giving it about 57 percent of the market. The $64 billion company cares less about cable TV than TCI's 600-plus local franchises and its high-speed wiring that connects millions of houses. The company already controls cable modem provider At Home and wants to take big bites out of America Online and other Internet services. Naturally, some want to throw antitrust arrows at this corporate giant, and FCC regulators are always around with a full quiver. As part of the TCI deal, AT&T is spending more than $100 billion to start selling local phone service by routing phone calls over the cable lines. This means it will go head-to-head with its former units in the old Bell System. The key word is convergence. Putting phone calls, TV channels, and Internet connections together, running them through one box: AT&T is just one standout player in a host of digital megapowers all trying to buy up the future. Dunkin' Dissent
David Felton walked into his local Dunkin' Donuts store, ordered some coffee, and discovered he couldn't get any skim milk. So he complained openly on his website, soliciting comments from others. Mr. Felton then blew the idea into a website called www.dunkindonuts.org-and ran it for two years until the company bought it from under him. The 25-year-old webmaster said people poured into the site "hoping I could work some sort of magic and force Dunkin' Donuts Inc. to listen to them." Mr. Felton said that company representatives visited the site every day, reading and responding to people who posted complaints. Eventually, franchise owners jumped in, responding publicly about problems. Dunkin' Donuts didn't take the existence of a dunkindonuts.org lightly. The name was a sore point. Mr. Felton was told to stop using the brand, but the upstart decided to negotiate. "Dunkin' Donuts did not want anything except for me to go away," he said. "So I said, 'OK, purchase my website.'" Executives at the doughnut chain aren't telling what they paid for the site, but issued a statement saying Dunkin' Donuts "encourages its customers to continue to send their feedback to www.dunkindonuts.org." The purchase is an unusual way to mange public relations. Since anyone can publish on the Net, anyone can rant and rave about brand names from Microsoft to K-Mart. In this case, people griped about stale product, employees who can't speak English, and even doughnuts without filling. This is another consequence of the decline of media gatekeepers. Fast-food managers already worry about angry customers who reportedly tell five friends not to eat so-and-so's hamburgers. Internet accounts pass out megaphones to the disgruntled. Customer service and spin control will never be the same.

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