The Postal Service started on a “death spiral,” the Government Accountability Office noted in 2002, as its revenue-generating letter mail migrated to electronic channels. In response, Congress has been struggling to craft legislation that would restructure postal policy and operations. This financial deterioration jeopardizes the future of universal postal service, a prospect that rural communities find especially disquieting. Lawmakers working on postal reform recognize that universal postal service remains an ill-defined policy. This article examines universal postal service through the lens of policy history. The analysis suggests that universal postal service developed as a communication safety net to fill gaps left by other information networks. In light of this history, the article proposes that lawmakers treat universal postal service as part of a more comprehensive policy promoting universal communication service.
Part I furnishes brief context, sketching the place of universal service under two postal regimes—that of the Post Office Department (1789-1971) and U.S. Postal Service (1971-present). Part II considers universal service in different communication contexts, especially telephony and broadcasting. Parts III to VI examine the several dimensions of universal postal service, discussing the origins of each policy. Specifically, Part III identifies key steps in developing a national postal infrastructure and how policymakers found ancillary purposes for it. Part IV analyzes postal rate policies, especially uniform (i.e., non-distance sensitive) postage, that facilitated the nationwide circulation of political, economic, and social information. Part V shows how targeted policies bridged the postal divide between urban and rural America. Part VI sketches relations between the government posts and the private sector’s complementary and competing communication systems. Part VII offers recommendations that would treat universal postal service as a component of universal communication service.
Keywords: network economics, policy history, postal service, telecommunication, universal service