While on a hike with colleagues, one asked a thought provoking question: Should the United States Post Service (USPS) operate as an Internet Service Provider (ISP)? This post is an opinion piece playing with that idea; here are my thoughts. It’s far from a hot take, and has been discussed before.
Article 1 Section 8 of the United States Constitution states: “The Congress shall have Power…To establish Post Offices and post Roads;”
But it’s Title 39 of the U.S. Code that actually defines what the mission of the USPS:
The United States Postal Service shall be operated as a basic and fundamental service provided to the people by the Government of the United States, authorized by the Constitution, created by Act of Congress, and supported by the people. The Postal Service shall have as its basic function the obligation to provide postal services to bind the Nation together through the personal, educational, literary, and business correspondence of the people. It shall provide prompt, reliable, and efficient services to patrons in all areas and shall render postal services to all communities.
How do Americans correspond in 2023? The United States Postal Service: An American History states that in 2021 129B pieces/year of mail volume. A 2022 report from The Redicati Group estimated that worldwide for 2022, 333.2B emails would be sent. Per. Day. Now that’s worldwide; though it’s hard to imagine that number not being massively larger than the amounts of snail mail sent in the US though. It would seem that digital correspondence is favored massively over physical correspondence in the US in 2023.
Section 403 of Title 39 of the U.S. Code lays out the General Duties of the USPS:
(a) The Postal Service shall plan, develop, promote, and provide adequate and efficient postal services at fair and reasonable rates and fees. The Postal Service shall receive, transmit, and deliver throughout the United States, its territories and possessions, and, pursuant to arrangements entered into under sections 406 and 411 of this title, throughout the world, written and printed matter, parcels, and like materials and provide such other services incidental thereto as it finds appropriate to its functions and in the public interest. The Postal Service shall serve as nearly as practicable the entire population of the United States.
(b) It shall be the responsibility of the Postal Service—
(1) to maintain an efficient system of collection, sorting, and delivery of the mail nationwide;
(2) to provide types of mail service to meet the needs of different categories of mail and mail users; and
(3) to establish and maintain postal facilities of such character and in such locations, that postal patrons throughout the Nation will, consistent with reasonable economies of postal operations, have ready access to essential postal services.
(c) In providing services and in establishing classifications, rates, and fees under this title, the Postal Service shall not, except as specifically authorized in this title, make any undue or unreasonable discrimination among users of the mails, nor shall it grant any undue or unreasonable preferences to any such user.
Does email count as “like materials?” Would offering the means of transportation of emails constitute “other services incidental thereto” “in the public interest?” Is there anything in Title 39 that specifies these powers are limited to physical mail (as opposed to digital)?
Specifically Section 404 of Title 39 of the U.S. Code details specific powers of the USPS. The first is literally:
(a) Subject to the provisions of section 404a, but otherwise without limitation of the generality of its powers, the Postal Service shall have the following specific powers, among others: (1) to provide for the collection, handling, transportation, delivery, forwarding, returning, and holding of mail, and for the disposition of undeliverable mail; … (3) to determine the need for post offices, postal and training facilities and equipment, and to provide such offices, facilities, and equipment as it determines are needed;
The U.S. Code doesn’t prescribe precisely what equipment the USPS needs to fulfill their duties; that specific power is reserved for the USPS. That’s why you don’t see specific details whether ponies or mail trucks are to be used. Can you imagine what kind of equipment would be necessary for USPS to “receive, transmit, and deliver throughout the United States, its territories and possessions, and … throughout the world, written … matter … and like materials” such as emails? Perhaps a nationwide network of fiber optic cables? 5G towers? Or perhaps interstate trunks while enabling municipalities to handle the last mile? Or maybe just the last mile?
Providing email service is not the same thing as providing internet service, but providing internet service to me sounds like a means of providing the equipment necessary for the collection, handling, transportation, delivery, forwarding, returning, and holding of digital mail.
The parts of Title 39 referenced above “It shall provide prompt, reliable, and efficient services to patrons in all areas and shall render postal services to all communities.” brings up an interesting problem with regards to internet access in the United States today. A 2022 report from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) (a division of the US Dept. of Commerce) and cited in their Internet For All campaign finds that “about one in five U.S. households are not connected to the Internet at home” (though they also find that “a majority – 58% – of the 24 million offline households express no interest or need to be online.”) They find 4% (960,000 households) of respondents don’t have access.
Even when Americans do have access to the Internet, when they don’t have access to more than one ISP, they may face monopolistic pricing. The 2022 NTIA report cited earlier mentioned 18% of households didn’t have internet access due to pricing alone.
Even when Americans have access to the Internet, whether they have the bandwidth to keep up with modern tasks is yet another issue.
Slightly different than access to the internet at all is whether US households have access to bandwidths necessary for modern computing. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) publishes a Broadband Speed Guide where they recommend minimum bandwidths for certain activities. For example, they currently recommend for “running one activity at a time” of “Streaming Ultra HD 4K Video” (the most demanding activity they list) they recommend a recommended Minimum Download Speed of 25 Mbps.
The FCC also publishes national Broadband Progress Reports and International Broadband Data Reports with some regular cadence, though the latest reports in each series are from 2021 and 2018 respectively. The latest (“14th”) Broadband Progress report clarifies 25Mbps down/3Mbps up is “the Commission’s current benchmark” for broadband. They found in the 2021 national report “fewer than 14.5 million Americans at the end of 2019” lacked access to 25/3 broadband, though BROADBANDNOW disputes this claim stating this number may be closer to 42 million Americans. I am concerned that the FCC report from 2021 cites measurements from 2019; the dissenting statements from FCC commissioners at the end of the report are also well worth a read. Also, where are the latest reports for 2022? I’m guessing they were discontinued because they were pretty lame; the latest international report from 2018 uses data from 2014 and uses the measure of 256 kbps as the definition for broadband… Other reports may be more reliable for international comparisons.
Pew Trusts also wrote about America’s Digital Divide back in 2019, claiming that “that the number of Americans without broadband (25/3) could be over 163 million.”
There’s clearly inconsistencies with reported data; measurement is necessary to understand whether changes have effect. The Broadband DATA Act which became law in 2020 talks about reforming the FCC’s Form 477 data collection process, which the FCC goes to great lengths defending in their Broadband Progress Reports.
Even with public funding, private ISPs struggle to meet milestones laid out by the FCC in terms of minimum bandwidth requirements.
The Internet gives everyone access to the world’s knowledge. My parent’s generation grew up with having physical encyclopedias (if they were lucky). I grew up with Wikipedia. Given two students, one with Internet access and one without, do they have equal chances of being successful? Or how about two households, one that can afford broadband and one that can’t, were their children equally successful during COVID when many students needed access to video streaming to participate in daily classes from home?
Should the government be responsible for such infrastructure, or private industry? ISPs aren’t exactly favorable in the US; some topping lists such as the Worst Company in America. Could the USPS do a better job here? They’re certainly not equipped for this today at all and would have a lot of catching up to do.
That said, a casual reading Title 39 and the various resources linked here, I think you could make the case that USPS could be tasked with providing Internet access to Americans in the pursuit of transmission of digital mail.
But what do you think?