So who will miss the mail today?

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In the Nineties era of the fax and ever-spreading computer communications would we really miss the Royal Mail? If customers use other ways of communicating with each other today, why bother with the postal service in future?

Royal Mail is worried that today's 24-hour postal strike will give a boost to competition from electronic mail between companies' computers on the Internet and Electronic Data Interchange.

The dispute, the first national postal strike in a decade, highlights the fact that more people are writing letters than 10 years ago, and so far no one has been able to challenge Royal Mail's ability to deliver to 25 million addresses all over Britain. But the Post Office is concerned that today's 24-hour strike over a new package of pay and conditions may prompt customers to question the need for its services.

Over the past 10 years the number of letters carried by Royal Mail has increased by half, to about 70 million a day at a time of strong competition from private carriers and burgeoning new technology. Personal letters have maintained their 10 per cent share of the total; the rest is business usage.

Nevertheless, the Post Office's share of the pounds 30bn-a-year communications industry fell from 20 per cent to 16 per cent over the same period. Since 1984 the number of fax machines has increased by 1,500 per cent. British Telecom yesterday began an advertising campaign asking potential customers to "consider the fax". The last national postal strike a decade ago prompted a boom in the sales of the machines.

The signs from the United States do not bode well. The US postal service calculates that a quarter of its revenue is under direct threat from electronic media. About 4 per cent of its business has already been lost to other communications services.

In Britain in 1985 some 200 organisations had installed computer systems; today the total is 13,000. It is predicted that by 2004, two-thirds of households will have computers. In response, the Post Office has developed a system whereby companies write letters on their computer screens and transmit them to Royal Mail which prints them out and delivers them.

Royal Mail's management knows it cannot afford to stand still. That is why it is demanding higher productivity from its 134,000 sorting and delivery staff. "The union is seeking job security, but strikes only serve to undermine the public's confidence in the service and our ability to deliver such security," a spokesman said.