House sees e-mail spike

Disrupted postal service to Congress and other branches of the government has prompted a spike in e-mail traffic, but federal agencies said it is too early to tell if anthrax attacks through the mail were pushing the public to use online services instead.

Disrupted postal service to Congress and other branches of the government has prompted a spike in e-mail traffic, but federal agencies said it is too early to tell if anthrax attacks through the mail were pushing the public to use online services instead.

Postal Service spokesman Gerry Kreienkamp said the service has no surveys or systems to gauge whether use of the electronic versions of certified mail, secure documents, bills and letters has increased significantly since the attacks.

Congress, however, has measured an increase in its inbound e-mail.

'The House offices have been receiving about 1 million e-mails daily, compared to 800,000 to 900,000 e-mails that we got prior to [reports of] anthrax,' said Reynold Schweickhardt, director of technology for the House Administration Committee. The number includes messages received from constituents and those exchanged among House offices.

The system, which has the capacity for 2 million e-mail messages daily, is holding up well, Schweickhardt said.

House e-mail traffic has quadrupled since 1996, and the legislature has been planning a major upgrade of the Campus Data Network, also known as the House backbone, from 10-Mbps Ethernet to 100-Mbps Ethernet.

The upgrade will help Congress handle the increased demand on the network.

Schweickhardt said that although e-mail is an option for correspondence, it's important that constituents who do not have computers still have means to communicate with Congress.

'So we need to look at a whole range of solutions, such as opening hard mail externally before it reaches the House offices,' he said.

Although some federal agencies said they couldn't determine if the anthrax scare was pushing the public to use Web services, Nielsen//NetRatings Inc., an Internet research firm in New York, said use at federal sites for information on anthrax has increased dramatically.

Mark Hinkle, a spokesman for the Social Security Administration, which offers a number of online services, couldn't say whether more people have started using them.

'But to ease their concerns about receiving checks from us, we can ask them to sign up for our direct-deposit service online,' he said.

Larry Massanari, acting commissioner of Social Security on Direct Deposit, said in a statement, 'Some understandable concerns have been expressed by our beneficiaries about the safety of mailed Social Security checks. For those who have these concerns, I want to encourage them to use the most convenient and safest way for beneficiaries to receive their payments'direct deposit.'

Hinkle said the administration might ask the public to increase its use of Web services.

Veterans Affairs Department spokeswoman Fran Heimrich echoed that sentiment.

'Though there has been no visible spurt in the public using online services,' she said, 'individuals may soon start considering using them.'

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, a senior State Department official said State had asked the public to use online services even before the anthrax scare.

'There is no conscious effort now,' he said. 'We've always asked people to get information from the Web and use our services.'

Mark Amtower, president of Amtower & Co., who has followed government mailing policies for 18 years, said feds likely will find regular mail a hard habit to kick.

'The government cannot simply operate without hard-copy mail,' he said. 'For instance, at SSA, in spite of the agency having a number of online services, the older generation prefers to correspond via hard mail just because they are not comfortable using the Internet.'

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