Will USPS be ready for eDoc in January?
December 11, 2013
By Brad Hill
It seems all the rage these days for government entities to push monumental new technologies on the promise of brighter days, only to fail to deliver on time or benefits. Will this be the fate of USPS’ beloved Full-Service Intelligent Mail initiative? The answer might not be so simple.
As a quick refresher, Full-Service compliance will be necessary to claim automation mailing rates after Jan. 26, 2014. But if you choose not to claim automation barcode discounts, it is not required.
The most notable change for newspapers in Full-Service is the requirement to submit postage statements and supporting paperwork electronically instead of printed hardcopies. USPS refers to these electronic records as eDoc, short for electronic documentation. Once eDoc has been transmitted to the Post Office, the resulting postage statement can be viewed online by logging into the Business Customer Gateway at gateway.usps.com.
In addition to replacing hardcopy forms, eDoc also increases the amount of information that can be sent to the U.S. Postal Service regarding each mailing. Details may include an entry for each labeled piece in the mailing, which bundle it’s in and which sacks or trays those are in, all of which can be tracked back to the sender base on their Mailer ID. USPS claims to be able to use this information for tracking accuracy, compliance, mail volume and performance throughout its network, though little of that will help newspapers in the short term because most of our mail does not go through the tracking system.
DIFFERENT FLAVORS OF EDOC
Catering to the needs of different kinds of mailers, the Postal Service has developed multiple methods for submitting eDoc, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. Support for the different kinds of eDoc varies by software, with each product typically focusing on one submission method. They are:
• Mail.XML—Created specifically for the purpose of submitting eDoc and other electronic data exchange between the post office, mailers and mail service providers. Mail.XML is the fastest method for submitting eDoc, and is the only method that can be fully automated by software.
Because it is complex and newer than the other methods, software support is still limited. For the same reason, many errors in USPS back-end systems have taken a long time to identify, and continue to be found with some regularity.
• Mail.dat—The standard mailing industry format used by magazine printers for describing the details of a mailing in a format that can be shared and manipulated before and after it has been presorted. Mail.dat has a long history and as such can be created by most commercial bulk mail software.
The main drawback to using Mail.dat for eDoc is the number of steps involved. Once the Mail.dat files have been exported from presort software, an additional program must then be used to upload the mailing job to the Postal Service. That program, known as the MDR Client, is available as a free download from USPS, and must be manually updated occasionally to stay compatible with changes to USPS systems.
Performance of Mail.dat is also reported to be an issue at times, with some mailing jobs taking several hours to upload and process before they appear on the screen of an acceptance clerk in the field.
• Postal Wizard—A simple website that allows manual entry of postage statement information. This method, which requires logging into the USPS website and entering the values from a printed postage statement, is only available when mailing fewer than 10,000 pieces.
In addition, 100 percent of the pieces in a mailing submitted this way must be Full-Service due to a limitation in the system. That means copies bearing an address that is not deemed deliverable by CASS must be sent as a separate mailing that is not Full-Service. Support for Periodical flats was added to the Postal Wizard in October. It is also labor-intensive, because it shifts the data entry from the postal clerk to the newspaper staff.
POSTAL PROBLEMS PERSIST
Despite all the attention given to Full-Service and eDoc in particular, new problems continue to be found in PostalOne!, the postal accounting database where all eDoc information is sent and stored. Some are limited to Mail.XML or Mail.dat, while others apply to all eDoc methods.
In many cases these new issues are the result of regressions—the software term used when something breaks that previously worked, often because of a fix to some other area. Other problems have been the result of new validations introduced to catch eDoc submissions containing bogus information.
As more mailers move to using Full-Service, new scenarios are also being presented through eDoc that may not have been taken into account in the initial PostalOne! design, or may not have been adequately tested. When that happens, USPS attempts to respond with a workaround, or occasionally with an emergency patch depending on the severity of the issue and nature of the fix.
As of Nov. 7, there were a reported 126 known issues in PostalOne!, with 28 fixes scheduled to go out before the January deadline. Thirteen issues were set to the highest priority of “Critical,” of which three are scheduled for release by Jan. 26.
WILL IT WORK?
The short answer is: Yes.
The better question is: How well? It is important for newspapers to make the shift to eDoc, which offers greater efficiency both for the industry and for USPS, even if the other IMb benefits are sparse.
Surrounded by technology in nearly all facets of life, most folks are understanding of a glitch here and there. And given the staggering amount of information that goes into eDoc, it is to be expected that the occasional bug would be found. But with more outstanding issues than days left to fix them, the Postal Service has its work cut out for it to prioritize those items that would cause the most damage to their customers.
That USPS is still making significant changes to the way its system works indicates that it was premature in setting the 2014 deadline for Full-Service. But at this, the 11th hour, eDoc as a Full-Service requirement has already achieved too-big-to-fail status. What remains to be seen is just how close they can get to the brighter days they promised next month. © Brad Hill 2013
Brad Hill is president of Interlink Inc., a postal software company and an NNA representative on the Mailers Technical Advisory Committee. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.