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Digital Mail: the return of the communications giants

by Caroline McGarr , 15.11.2012

Last month (October 2012) the Universal Postal Union (UPU), an organization representing postal operators from 192 countries around the world, convened in Doha.  At the conference the UPU is launching its global digital mail platform, which will use Digital Mail Box and EPCM (Electronic Postal Certification Mark) technology allowing postal operators to deliver digital certified communications across borders. This is a long awaited step for an industry which has seen its core business of letter mail erode with expansion of e-mail.

What is digital mail?

Unlike ordinary e-mail, digital mail guarantees the sender’s identity, the date electronic mail was send, the security of the content and the receipt of the message.

Digital mail is not new. Private firms have been developing certified e-mail technology since before the turn of the century. R- Post, an American company set up in 2000 specializes in the authenticating that an email has been received, with obvious attractions to legal firms and government. Other companies, such as Pitney Bowes with its Volly product, and Zumbox, provide digital mail technology to both private digital mail providers, such as Digital Post Australia, and national postal operators.

Selling point: certification and security

The selling point for digital mail is that it provides a digital inbox that is secure and free from spam. This is intended to appeal to both consumers and businesses for correspondence such as billing, bank statements, purchase orders and legal communications – what is known as transactional mail.

Chair of UPU’s Strategy Committee, Terry Dunn, has said “There is a fundamental transformation taking place in the postal business… people want to receive their messages differently, with the same assurances of trust and security they associate with the post”

The fact that private firms have already sprung up providing digital mail services suggests there is a needs gap for businesses that increasingly rely on digital communications. As of yet consumer take up appears to be less widespread. It will be interesting however, so see whether consumers are as receptive.

GfK’s experience with attitudes to smartphone security suggest that when consumers do express concerns about data security online they are unlikely to be driven to action.

On the other hand, transactional mail has been the ‘choke point’ in the process of e-mail substitution for letter mail, especially because of higher security concerns from consumers about ‘important’ documents. There has been greater trust in the postal operators than the internet. A digital mailbox from a postal operator may therefore be more appealing.


Digital addresses also allows for digital identities. Such identities also allow for greater inclusion and more efficient communications between government and citizens. This is again a great opportunity for postal operators who are often the conduit for a range of government services around the globe, such as driving licence and passport services.  Countries such a number of Arab Gulf states, where heat, distance and nomadic lifestyles make door to door delivery impossible, are great examples of where postal operators have already leapfrogged systems in ‘developed’ countries in digital mail and e-government.

Looking to the future, digital identities and digital signatures could replace the need for a postal address completely. This could have positive implications for increasingly mobile working age populations, and indeed, the homeless, whose lack of a postal address currently disqualifies them from opening bank accounts and a range of government services. For those who are ready to settle, digital signatures could greatly reduce the paper trail usually associated with the purchase of a house and attaining a mortgage. Electronic voting also becomes a possibility.

The future – Posts to reclaims communications?

For postal operators, digital mail is not just a way to claw back ground lost when e-mail all but destroyed their core product of physical mail delivery. In fact there is a long history of diversity in postal operations; from Postal Banking to developing telecommunications networks in the twentieth century to providing the essential infrastructure for government services. Digital Mail and e-Government is an opportunity for postal operators to leverage their reputation as trusted institutions, draw on their long experience of providing wide ranging services to a huge number of customers.

Digitization may allow postal operators to be seen once again as innovative communications giants, acting as an essential hubs for truly digital societies.