USPS wants control of '.us' domain

Angling for a role in the world of electronic media, the U.S. Postal Service said it wants to manage a top-level Internet address domain that would allow it to take advantage of possible electronic services in the future.

With the backing of the White House, USPS is floating a proposal that would give it control over the ".us" domain space on the Internet, which today is used primarily by state and local government employees, including public schools and libraries. Individuals also can obtain .us domain addresses. However, the length of the address, which follows a "city.state.us" structure, can be difficult to remember.

As part of its plan, the agency wants to link street addresses in the United States to an e-mail address in the .us domain, which would broaden the opportunities for USPS to develop as-yet-undefined electronic services.

The government-operated USPS, which has a monopoly on first-class mail delivery, has faced intense and increasing competition for other delivery services from private mail services such as Federal Express and United Parcel Service. With the growth of the Internet, USPS now must compete with e-mail messages, which bypass the agency.

In an effort to expand its business, USPS is testing new electronic services, including first-class mailing through the Internet and security services such as the electronic postmark, which puts a date and time stamp on an electronic message. The hope is that these types of services could be integrated with the .us domain addressing infrastructure to spur the growth of electronic commerce worldwide.

The USPS proposal is a subset of a larger issue regarding management of the Internet. Last month the White House released a report that calls for the U.S. government to turn over management of Internet addressing to a private organization that would act on behalf of the Internet as a whole. The report said, "There is much opportunity for enhancing the .us domain space, and .us could be expanded in many ways without displacing the current structure."

The USPS move is a strategic one and would be a natural extension to what USPS does already, said Cathy Rogerson, manager of new business at USPS. "The Postal Service exists for the personal and business correspondence of people," she said. "One of the ways we do that is to keep a national private database [of addresses] that enables people to get stuff.

"We're saying we played in this infrastructure for 220 years. It makes sense for us [to manage .us] as correspondence moves from paper to electronic form. It could be useful," she added.

USPS is proposing it receive a fee for registering each .us address, but Rogerson said the proposal was not developed as a way to generate revenue for the nonprofit USPS. "It's not a money issue. It's a matter of continuing to offer the infrastructure services for commerce," she said. "That's what we're trying to do on the Internet: help people get access to services in a secure way [that are available] to everybody."

USPS' plan to move into the electronic world makes sense in order to stay competitive, said Allan Burman, president of Jefferson Solutions, Washington, D.C. "It's a core competency, and the Postal Service is positioning itself for greater use of this technology in the future," he said.

However, the agency may be limited by its status as a government corporation, said William Kovacic, a professor of law at George Mason University, Fairfax, Va. "I think [the proposal] does make sense. A number of foreign [postal] administrations are positioning themselves to provide their services," he said. "But I see lots of trouble in the future in doing something like this as long as [USPS] is a public institution. It will always be a step behind."

Currently, the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) is under a subcontract to Network Solutions Inc. to manage the .us domain. Network Solutions manages the registration services for .com, .org, .net and .edu.

A spokesman for Network Solutions declined to elaborate on the proposal until it is completed. "We don't have any details on the [USPS proposal]," the spokesman said. "There hasn't been a formal proposal...submitted to us."

But the IANA said it has discussed the proposal with USPS officials. "We now have a general understanding that the USPS is interested in supporting our work on managing the .us domain for the year October 1998 through September 1999 and possibly [other] years," said Jon Postel, who heads the IANA. No contract has been signed, he said.

Over the next few months, the government will work with industry as well as state and local governments to determine how best to make the .us domain more attractive to commercial users.

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