The British Post Office has launched the first international electronic mail service. Letter writers in a hurry can now "post" an item of mail in London and have it "delivered" via satellite in Toronto two minutes later.
Later this year the same type of system will operate between Britain and other centers abroad.
The system, known as Intelpost, conveys replicas of letters or other documents between terminal points. At present it a costs L4 ($9) to flash a page of typescript between London and Toronto, but the postal authorities expect the price to drop once people get used to the system and take advantage of its flexibility.
The British Post Office has been experimenting with electronic mail for some years, but this is the first time a regular international service has operated.
Letters to be sent are scanned at the London end, then an image of each page is transmitted via satellite to a receiving station. There the fascimile is available to the recipient.
Trade unionists in the British Post Office are apprehensive about the new service. They feat it will become so popular that normal transmission of letters will fall away. There are also fears among telex operators who realize that Intelpost will operte even moe rapidly than their own system.
Already there are signs that Intelpost has a big future in the commercial world. Letters of credit and other documents of official authorization can be bounced through a satellite between world capitals, enabling businessmen to make immediate judgments on creditability and other aspects of commercial activity.
At present it can take a week or more for an airmail letter to pass between Britain and North America. The new service is virtually instantaneous.
According to one estimate, introduction of Intelpost could lead to the elimination of the jobs of 40,000 postal workers in the next decade.
British Post Office managers believe they have notched up a major achievement by getting the new service introduced without creating a damaging union dispute in the postal system as a whole.