Such a card, used at postal locations, would allow users to access electronic data networks, renew passports and buy airline tickets as well as, optionally, containing medical and other personal records issued by federal agencies, said Robert Reisner, postal service VP-technology applications.
It's even possible that the card could be used to vote in federal elections, although Mr. Reisner wouldn't comment on that use. It also would allow government agencies to conduct money transfers to local ATMs and deliver other social service functions.
"We are looking for smart card applications, and if in the next two years we find applications for it, we will have one," he said. "The reason we are testing our pre-paid card in postal locations is so we can work through implications [of customers' use].
"This card will be more than just phone calls."
The current prepaid First Class Phonecard, co-branded by American Express Telcom, New York, in what an American Express spokesman called a "joint venture test with the USPS," is in Columbus, Ohio; Miami; Albuquerque; San Antonio and Austin, Texas; Providence, R.I.; Salt Lake City; and San Diego markets. The cards feature stamp images and are available in denominations of $5, $10, $20, $50 and $100. So far, no marketing efforts are planned to support the card.
"One reason we chose American Express for co-branding was that if someone loses a card, American Express can replace it immediately," said Mr. Reisner.
He didn't rule out the possibility of selling smart card sponsorships. Toby Usnik, manager-public affairs for AmEx, said the company would welcome further discussions if the pre-paid card tests prove successful.
"If the postal service comes to us and says they would like to explore other opportunities, we are open to listen," he said.
Mr. Reisner said the postal service feels cards providing customers access to electronic networks are important.
He cited as an example the possibility of multimedia, one-stop shopping kiosks in postal offices that will allow Aid to Dependent Children recipients to look for job opportunities, find information on pre-natal care or access other social services.
Privacy and access safeguards will be key to development of a smart card, Mr. Reisner said.
"What we need to deliver is trust in creating an infrastructure that lies beneath the marketplace," he said. "We believe there can be piracy protection. If there....are medical records on a card, there needs to be security. The public is very concerned that the convenience of electronic applications could be accompanied by certain difficulties."
Mr. Reisner said such electronic security is already under development by the military. Half the nation's military personnel carry their medical records from base to base in folders. The military is now working on converting that to totally electronic records, he said.
The next step following the pre-paid card test, he said, is a card that, purchased from a vending machine, will allow the user to buy stamps and other postal services electronically.