On April 18, 2013 the USPS announced it had taken the last step to finalize new requirements to mail at automation-based postage rates by publishing a notice in the Federal Register. Effective January 26, 2014, mailers must use full-service Intelligent Mail to qualify for automation pricing when mailing postcards, letters, and flats as first-class presorted mail; letters and flats as standard mail; for periodicals; and for flats mailed as bound printed matter. This means using the Intelligent Mail barcode (IMb) on the outbound address and the 24-digit IMb on tray, tub, and sack labels.
What is Intelligent Mail?
Intelligent Mail is an important part of the USPS strategic vision to make all mail pieces visible from the time of entry into the mail stream to delivery at the final destination. This visibility provides operational benefits to the USPS since it will enable better planning and more efficient use of USPS resources if the content and makeup of mail is known in advance. For mailers and mail service providers, Intelligent Mail means the ability to locate an individual mail piece as it makes its way through the various processing and delivery steps.
Intelligent Mail was first introduced in January 2009 in two forms: basic and full-service. Generally, basic service was a replacement for the POSTNET barcode with the addition of address correction services, but no ability to track each individual mail piece. The USPS always intended basic service as a transition to full-service rather than a permanent part of Intelligent Mail.
Full-service Tech Credit
From 2009 to 2012, the USPS worked with mailers, software vendors, and mail service providers to simplify, refine, and improve the full-service option and ease the transition from basic to full-service for mailers. As part of this process, the USPS developed an incentive called the Full-service Technology Credit (tech credit) to help offset the investment required for hardware and software changes to support full-service mailings. Mailers did not apply for the tech credit; rather, the eligibility was established by the USPS on the basis of the number of full-service-eligible mailings submitted under individual Customer Registration ID (CRID) numbers over a 12-month measurement period.
Mailers who qualified for the tech credit received letters in the early part of 2013 notifying them of the credit amount that can be redeemed in postage. The amounts are not insubstantial. For 125,000 to 500,000 eligible pieces, the credit is $2,000; between 500,000 and two2 million, the credit is $3,000; and more than two million, the credit is $5,000.
The tech credit is like a prepaid debit for postage, though it can only be applied to full-service mailings containing 90 percent or more full-service pieces. Redemption is over a 12-month period beginning June 2013, and is claimed through eDoc submission using Mail.dat or Mail.XML. Postal Wizard submissions are not eligible. If a single mailing does not use all the tech credit, the balance can be applied to future mailings.
Steps to Implement Intelligent Mail
Broadly speaking, the steps for full-service Intelligent Mail are straightforward: obtain a Mailer ID from the USPS, generate and print the IMb as part of the outbound address (requires use of an IMb font, available for download from the USPS), schedule mail entry appointments through the Facility Access and Shipment Tracking (FAST) system, and submit the postage statement through eDocs using the Mail.dat or Mail.XML file format. Mailing service providers must also provide information about the mail owner (i.e.: the entity for which the mailing is being done) for any mailing over 5,000 pieces.
Mailers must be authorized by the USPS to submit eDocs. The process for this is called Test Environment for Mailers, or TEM testing. Basically, the mailer prepares from one to five types of Mail.dat files and submits them as test cases. The USPS provides feedback and approval for full-service Intelligent Mail submissions. For many mailers, this has been the most time-consuming part of becoming full-service-eligible. Once eligible for full-service Intelligent Mail, the mailer needs to do three things: print a unique ID to each mail piece, create unique container tags, and create the eDoc.