MORE Americans are sending letters and paying bills electronically. E-mail - compared with what some computer users derisively call ``snail mail'' - is fast, convenient, and relatively inexpensive once the computer hardware is purchased.
``Personal and business use of e-mail has been increasing in the last couple years, and the recent postal increase will probably make people think even harder about the use of alternative mail,'' says Mark Rockwell of the nonprofit Electronic Messaging Association in Arlington, Va., a trade group of companies using e-mail and computer software companies.
``The fact that first-class postage is going up by 3 cents [to 32 cents], it just kind of underscores it,'' says Mark McHarry of Lotus Development Corp., which makes the e-mail software ``cc:Mail.''
Most commercial on-line services allow users to send a number of e-mails under a monthly subscription then charge for additional messages. CompuServe, for example, allows 60 messages per month for $8.95, then charges 15 cents each for others.
Paying the rent or utility bill electronically is less common, perhaps because it's still cheaper for many consumers to write a check and mail it.
``We're at a point where there aren't enough people using these services to get the cost down, and the cost ultimately will drive the prices down,'' says Bruce Burchfield, chairman of National Payment Clearing House. ``The [postage] rate increase definitely affects our business positively,'' he says.
The Postal Service's own figures show one-third of mail sent between businesses since 1988 is now carried between companies by fax or by e-mail over the Internet or commercial services. But overall mail volume has increased.
Even the Postal Service uses e-mail, with about 20,000 of its employees using Lotus' cc:Mail software. And it's developing on-line government information kiosks for shopping malls and libraries. The post office also is looking at ways to certify e-mail messages to guarantee delivery and confidentiality.