On Jan. 4, the US mail is scheduled to join the electronic revolution. That day, the US Postal Service will pull the wrapping off E-COM: electronic, computer-originated mail. The E-COM system, three years in the making, is designed to relieve high-volume users of the need to print, stuff, stamp, and seal their messages. Customers begin by typing correspondence on their in-house computer screens, in a standardized format. Then, using either their own equipment or the services of a private telecommunications firm, the mailers whiz their message over phone lines to a SPO, one of 25 Serving Post Offices.
But many groups are less than enthused over E-COM's arrival. Telecommunications executives, suspecting the Postal Service wants to snatch some of their business, say the new field should be left to private enterprise. Some congressmen, piqued at what they call renegade behavior, claim the agency needs more control. A White House Cabinet subgroup is debating whether electronic mail should fall within the realm of the federal government.
And in the long run, say experts, the success or failure of E-COM may help answer a difficult question: How should public institutions, traditionally slow-moving beasts, adapt to the changes wrought by explosive growth in communications technology?
''(The Postal Service) is in a difficult position,'' says a congressional staff counsel. ''I don't envy them.''
When an electronic letter reaches a Serving Post Office, it thunks into some high-tech computer equipment, which prints the message, slips it into a blue-and-white envelope, and tosses the finished product in the regular first-class mail pile.
Delivery within two days system is guaranteed, at a cost of 26 cents for one page and 31 cents for two. The service isn't for sending an endearing missive to a loved one: There's a minimum of 200 messages per SPO whenever you use the system.
The Postal Service expects E-COM will be used for billing, price changes, fund raising, and other mass market mailings. A spokesman says more than 100 potential customers have already applied for format approval, with more coming in ''almost daily.''
''E-COM is essentially a latter-day truck,'' says spokesman James Van Loozen. ''Just like we went from the stagecoach to the plane, we're going to electronic mail.''
But businessmen who believe the post office is sticking its toe into their territory don't think E-COM is such a natural step.
''It's the worst thing that could possibly happen to the industry,'' says Stanley Weinstein, a spokesman for telecommunications firm Graphnet Inc.
Basically, critics are less worried about E-COM itself than about what they fear it will lead to. Companies like Graphnet have the lines and equipment to send electronic messages across the country - and E-COM, as it's currently constituted, leaves this part of electronic mail to private enterprise.
But many in the telecommunications industry are convinced the Postal Service wants to take over transmission, as well as printing and delivery.
Reportedly, the Justice and Commerce Departments share this view. And a White House Cabinet subgroup, dealing with commerce, has not yet settled the question of government's proper role in electronic mail. Congressional sources claim the administration is upset about E-COM.
Postal Service officials say they don't plan to get into transmission. However, as a semi-autonomous entity, the service undeniably has more room to maneuver than other government agencies.
The Postal Rate Commission, charged with recommending postal rates and practices, has had reservations about E-COM. They haven't yet made a final ruling on the system -- though the Postal Service is going ahead without the Commission's blessing.
On Capitol Hill there is some annoyance over this frisky behavior. Congressional sources say E-COM is priced way under cost, and worry about the possible anticompetitive effects of the system.
''Other people won't enter this business if the Post Office can undersell them, and thumb their nose at the regulatory agencies,'' says a committee staffer who works on the issue.
For the Postal Service, the conundrum in the controversy is that they are being shoved into electronic mail by the pace of new technology. As more and more companies move into the ''Star Wars'' age of the ''electronic office,'' the US Post Office could lose much of its profitable business mail (the majority of first-class letters) to private firms, like GTE-Telenet, which are developing intricate electronic mail networks.
''The Post Office has to modernize to keep up with pressures to compete,'' says David Terrie, manager of office automation services at IDC, a consulting firm. ''(E-COM) is more important to the Post Office itself than to the populace at large.''
Mr. Terrie says he believes E-COM is ''a positive first step,'' necessary for the Postal Service to remain a truly nationwide service.
The rapidly multiplying power of electronics is thus forcing Washington to consider the federal government's proper role in light of the public good derived from a centralized mail service.
As a congressional staffer, critical of E-COM, says, the thought of the Postal Service losing its monopoly on first-class mail is ''scary.''
''Will [private enterprise] deliver a first-class letter to Enid, Okla., for 20 cents?'' the staffer asks.