The U.S. Postal Service, facing rivalry from a fax onslaught at high-tech homes and offices around the country, fought back Monday with a plan for a facsimile service to lure small businesses and private citizens.
Under a contract with a private company, the Post Office will put fax machines in local offices, deriving income from renting the space and sharing facsimile fees.
Post office fax users will pay by credit card to send documents worldwide around the clock in seconds, bypassing time-consuming, often unreliable postal services.
Assistant U.S. Postmaster General Gordon Morison said the service, to be piloted in 54 Northeastern post offices, would be expanded to 263 post offices across the country and, if successful, installed in 8,000 post office sites nationwide.
"Hopefully, we will provide other services of this kind for business to become one-stop shoppers," Morison said, referring to efforts to expand other lobby services suited to business and personal communication needs.
The program begins today in Manhattan, and in the next month fax machines should flank post boxes in 40 New York, 10 Boston and four Rhode Island sites.
Morison said the test locations are high-density business and residential areas, but plans also include rural areas.
The first pilot program will be operated by Hotelecopy Inc., whose president, Edd Helms, said the self-service fax machine service will be initially priced at $12.75 for a three-minute transmission of about seven pages.
Helms said the service is aimed at travelers and others who do not own machines.
"Everybody knows that gut-wrenching feeling when you can't get your hands on that document that is necessary to consummate the deal," he said.
The machines will be able to send and receive fax messages and are aimed at small businesses and private users.
"Today less than 25% of businesses and far less than 1% of residences have fax machines," he said.
Miami-based Hotelecopy offers electronic communication systems to the public, mainly in hotel lobbies.
Helms said MCI Communications Corp. would initially provide telephone communications 24 hours a day in 54 post offices.
Jerry Edgerton, MCI vice president for government systems, said the two companies have also bid jointly to provide the service to 209 additional test locations in four other U.S. Postal Service regions across the country.
Helms said the initial contract covers the Northeast for one year, renewable in two two-year blocks for up to five years, and that under the contract the company would provide for all eventual expanded service in the region.
He said the company would pay the U.S. Postal Service $150 a month per post office rental and an undisclosed share of the revenue generated from fax usage.
"We anticipate equal usage sending and receiving," he said, noting that existing machines in its network of more than 2,000 hotel sites are used mostly for receiving faxes.
U.S. Postal Service officials said bids for the other regions are expected to close Nov. 15 and would be awarded within 60 days. They said seven bids had been placed for the Northeast service and that three bidders had demonstrated equipment.