Mail carriers prep to go wireless

In an ongoing effort to make it more competitive with private carriers the U.S. Postal Service plans to improve its mail tracking and tracing capabilities and delivery performance through two wireless pacts that could top $1 billion.

The first procurement estimated to be about $500 million will allow USPS to acquire about 20 000 wireless mobile data collection devices. About 300 000 mail carriers will use the devices to scan a bar code on a letter or package. The device will then send information on the delivery place and time to a central host system via wide-area wireless communications. The solicitation for the devices is expected to be released this month or early next year.

The second estimated $500 million procurement will cover nationwide wireless communications services for the handheld devices. USPS planned to release a request for proposals around Nov. 15 but as of early last week it had yet to be issued.

USPS officials however said the agency reserves the right to buy the services off the General Services Administration's nationwide contract for cellular telecommunications services which was awarded last month to GTE Government Systems.

The wireless buy is the latest in a string of projects that aim to cuts costs and make USPS more competitive with private carriers such as Federal Express and United Parcel Service. "Postmaster General Marvin Runyon has testified that he wants new tools to make the Postal Service more competitive in this environment " said Al Burman group vice president of Jefferson Business Strategies a professional services firm in Washington D.C. "He wants them to do the same things that Federal Express does."We've only seen the tip of the iceberg in Runyon's efforts to compete with" commercial vendors said Robert Efrus group senior vice president of Jefferson Business Strategies. "This is something we'll see more and more of."

With the procurement for the hand-held devices USPS also wants to provide an emergency alert system for carriers and vehicle security and possible two-way messaging capabilities that managers and carriers can use for problem reporting and dispatching.

While the final specifications for the devices have not been drafted they are expected to rely on Global Positioning System technologies.

The device is expected to have unique features such as two-way messaging. "Vendors will need to develop whatever it is they will submit for testing because it's not [a product] that's available off the shelf " said David Beckman contracting officer at USPS.

Lee Akridge director of communications networks and products in TRW Corp.'s integrated engineering division described the contract as significant. "The Postal Service is one of the largest enterprises in the country " he said. "They have over 200 000 vehicles and tens of thousands of routes so it's a significant undertaking to put wireless capabilities in the hands of the people who are in trucks and on routes."TRW is one of six vendors USPS has pre-qualified to bid on the devices. Others include Northrop Grumman Lockheed Martin Corp. IBM Corp. Cordant and Symbol Technology.

With the wireless services contract USPS' goal is to "provide coverage to 95 percent of the population." It wants to obtain the "most cost-effective wireless data communication services [with] nationwide interoperability [that are] easily supportable and highly reliable with ubiquitous coverage " according to a USPS spokeswoman.

USPS reported in a Commerce Business Daily notice that it is looking for vendors that can provide Cellular Digital Packet Data Circuit Switched and CDPD-compatible Analog Mobile Phone System (AMPS)-based cellular data service. It may award single or multiple contracts that provide either nationwide coverage or coverage for a particular geographic area.

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