Intelligent Mail Barcode may be required by January 2013
April 2, 2012
By Max Heath
The Postal Service announced in February that it planned to require the so-called Intelligent Mail Barcode (IMb) by January 2013 in order for mail to qualify for automation barcode piece prices.
The result is that newspapers unable to print the IMb on address labels would be bounced to Nonmachinable Flats rate, nonbarcoded piece prices on Part C of Postage Statement 3541, lines C9-16 rather than C1-8. Although some newspapers may already be paying nonmachinable prices, there is a barcode discount for pieces meeting size requirements. Piece price postage could increase anywhere from 5.5 percent to 51 percent, depending on sort level.
The full-service IMb is a complex code that assigns an identity number to the “mail owner” who creates the mail, and an individual identifier for each piece in the mailing. Registration for the code requires assignment of a sufficient range of numbers to the registered mailer to allow unique numbers to be used for some time before cycling back to the starting number in each range. A simpler basic IMb would identify the mailer, but not each mail piece. The intent is to introduce visibility into the mailstream so USPS and, potentially, mailers know where their mail is in the mailstream.
The requirement to force the code onto all mailers has been postponed twice before, from January 2009 to May 2010, and then to May 2011. When Postmaster General Pat Donahoe took over from Jack Potter, he made this announcement to the Mailers’ Technical Advisory Committee relative to the IMb deadline:
“We’ve been using a stick and we want to go to a carrot,” Donahoe said, acknowledging that little financial incentive existed for mailers and adoption was slow. He replaced Tom Day with Ellis Burgoyne as executive vice president for technology and set no new deadline for mandatory IMb. When Burgoyne was asked about this at MTAC, he said, “…we will build a world-class system that will make you want IMb, rather than forcing you to do it.”
The latest proposal looks like a reversal of Donahoe’s and Burgoyne’s promise, and USPS is back to the “stick” once again. NNA expressed those sentiments in February to Burgoyne. NNA also filed comments to a Federal Register proposal on the January 2013 Basic IMb only.
The proposal would end automation barcoding discounts for the current POSTNET barcode technology in 2013. Although NNA did not specifically object to the twice-postponed 2011 deadline for Basic IMb, many other small mailing businesses did, resulting in the postmaster general’s indefinite postponement.
Despite Burgoyne’s statement to NNA that Full-Service IMb was always planned as a requirement, NNA and other mailers agree that such a plan had never been communicated. NNA viewed the Basic IMb as inevitable at some point, and many vendors that serve community newspapers had already announced that they were ready to provide Basic.
NNA WILL OPPOSE MANDATORY
IMb FULL-SERVICE FOR NEWSPAPERS
“Full-service” rises to another level of complexity, cost, IT savvy, and other problems for newspapers, including lack of value since USPS has failed to build flat-sorting machines to handle most newspapers effectively. Unfortunately, some newspaper copies never see a machine, so value is reduced. And carrier-route sorted mail entered at the office of delivery should not be burdened with printing the IMb, which requires more ink and slower print speeds. When a publisher drops copies at the delivery unit, it is pretty clear where in the mailstream those copies are.
Mandatory full-service by 2014 will be opposed on behalf of NNA members. The only additional discount offered mailers so far is one-tenth of a cent. Free electronic Address Change Service was also offered to Periodicals full-service users, but that was of significance only for large-volume magazines that have so far been mostly disappointed in the quality and timeliness of ACS.
NNA understands that USPS is in a weak financial position to enhance discounts, but questions its loading cost and complexity onto small mailers to help it achieve objectives that may or may not actually work properly and may not even be essential to the mailers’ service.
Larger vendors of presort software not tailored for community newspapers have priced full-service IMb technology at $4,795 per year or more. It requires that individual file numbers be assigned to each piece for service tracking through flat-sorting machines, as well as some other layers of complexity requiring an experienced IT staff to manage.
Some software vendors have indicated that Basic IMb will be provided at no additional cost when required as the minimum standard for automation discounts. Newspapers should check with their vendors and encourage compliance with that policy. NNA sees no value in full-service at any price, and encourages newspapers not to buy into sales efforts based on a policy that is still not even formally proposed, though announced.
WHY WOULD USPS REQUIRE
You can bet NNA asked that on your behalf. Here are the answers from Burgoyne (“US” means USPS, emphasis added):
• “It gets US tremendous value in saving operational costs through service measurement” (required by postal reform).
• “It saves US outside costs of service measurement” by independent vendors, like IBM.
• “It saves US costs as we move toward ‘seamless acceptance’ (electronic communication of mailer data).
• “It gives US a number of benefits in network optimization,” (the USPS proposal to close more than half its mail processing plants). Service measurement would be a diagnostic tool to fix problems with mail delays, USPS hopes.
• “It gives MAILERS ‘visibility tools’ to track their mail more accurately” through the system.
Note that the first four are all about Postal Service needs, and only one specifically for mailers. To be fair, saving costs within USPS can help mailers IF those savings help avoid larger postage price increases in the future. And Pritha Mehra, vice president of business mail entry, promises to simplify the process so that costs to small mailers will be reduced, even going so far as to promise functionality through the Postage Wizard, a manual entry matrix into the PostalOne! business mail accounting system.
New MTAC member Brad Hill, with Interlink Software, is well-positioned to work with Mehra and staff on simplification to test the theorems put forward. Time will tell, but NNA remains opposed until proof positive is offered.
WHAT IS INTELLIGENT MAIL BARCODE?
Instead of having just ascenders from a horizontal plain as the POSTNET code, it has ascenders, descenders, “trackers” and “full bar.” It is higher vertically, between 0.125 and 0.165 inch, requiring more space in the label area.
In addition to the 11-digit delivery point POSTNET barcode, the IMb contains a 20-digit tracking code with a barcode ID, service type ID, mailers identifier, and serial number. One concern NNA has is that most strike-on printers used for paper labels won’t be able to create the more complex IMb, especially to the demanding higher quality level. And mailers must also use special IMb tags for containers.
If this sounds complex, it’s because it is. The Guide to Intelligent Mail is 191 pages long. Other than getting the Mailer ID, newspapers should leave the rest up to software vendors. Samples of the old POSTNET Code and new IMB are shown with this article.
WHAT SHOULD NEWSPAPERS DO?
• Every newspaper will have to get a Mailer ID through the Business Service Gateway into PostalOne!
• Talk to your presort software vendor about its readiness to switch from POSTNET to Basic IMb.
• Check with your label printer vendor, whether paper labels or inkjet. See if its technology will print the new IMb. If not, ask it when might be ready and what is the cost?
• Give NNA your feedback. We need to know what problems you encounter so we can help represent you to USPS. My e-mail is below. © Max Heath 2011
Max Heath, NNA postal chair, is a postal consultant for Publishing Group of America (American Profile, Relish, Spry) and Landmark Community Newspapers LLC. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.