FCC Extends Accessibility Waiver for Kindle, Kobo eBook Readers

fcc-logoJust over a year ago the FCC granted US makers of ereader devices a limited exemption from complying with certain accessibility regulations, and this past week the FCC extended that waiver for another year.

As I reported last year, this waiver excuses Amazon et al from having to make ereaders which comply with the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010. This law requires that makers of "advanced communications services" to make sure those services are accessible to the disabled.

That is a generally good idea, but one tiny problem with the law is that the term "advanced communications services" is fairly broadly defined. It covers pretty much everything that connects to the web, from software to services to hardware, including tablets and ereaders.


Naturally this presents a problem for ebook readers, given that most do not offer TTS. Those same ereaders also lack the verbal cues required to make their menus usable by the visually disabled. This lead Amazon, Sony, and Kobo to ask for a waiver in August 2013.

A one year waiver was granted last January, and was extended this week. It's now set to expire on 28 January, 2016.

The waiver continues to exempt ereaders from this regulation, and defines them as:

  • the devices have no LCD screen;
  • they have no camera;
  • they are not offered or shipped to consumers with built-in email, IM, VoIP or other similar ACS client applications and the device manufacturer does not develop ACS applications for them;
  • they are marketed to consumers as reading devices and promotional material about them does not tout the capability to access ACS.

Obviously tablets are excluded from this definition, and so are some ereaders. For example, Onyx and Pocketbook both make devices that have email, or web abilities, or a camera, and so might not be able to enjoy the exemption. Luckily for Onyx and Pocketbook, the devices aren't sold and marketed in the US, so they can continue to skate the 2010 law.

Not all are happy about the renewed waiver, with David Rothman writing over at Library City:

This decision is a setback not just for disability-related causes but also literacy-related ones. Regardless of what the industry lobbyists say, TTS is reading—just a different kind. Even people without disabilities can benefit, using TTS to whet their interest in a book, and then getting hooked and enjoying the text the usual way. Not to mention all the commuters who could start aurally and continue with traditional reading. A little commonsense and social awareness, please. Can’t this be about more than K Street needs and arcane legal and legislative technicalities?

While I can understand how he feels, if I were in the position to need an accessible device, I think a tablet would suit me just fine. Given how much work Apple has put into the iPad and the accessibility features found in the latest versions of Android, I think they would serve better than an ereader with an E-ink screen.

And while we're on the topic, let me add that this waiver only covers the one federal regulation. All other regulations, including rules about libraries buying accessible devices and companies making their services accessible to the disabled, still apply.

image by kodomut

About Nate Hoffelder (11466 Articles)
Nate Hoffelder is the founder and editor of The Digital Reader: "I've been into reading ebooks since forever, but I only got my first ereader in July 2007. Everything quickly spiraled out of control from there. Before I started this blog in January 2010 I covered ebooks, ebook readers, and digital publishing for about 2 years as a part of MobileRead Forums. It's a great community, and being a member is a joy. But I thought I could make something out of how I covered the news for MobileRead, so I started this blog."

26 Comments on FCC Extends Accessibility Waiver for Kindle, Kobo eBook Readers

  1. Many thanks for covering this important issue, Nate—and congrats on being the first one to break the news last year about the FCC waiver in the first place!

    But, please, we need full access in E Ink readers. Blind people will appreciate their compactness and long battery life—at a price a fraction of the iPad’s. And sighted people? Many prefer a front-lighted screen (for glare reduction) and other features of E Ink. They may want TTS at least part of the time. I do! It’s great for use when exercising. I read on both E Ink machines and tablets and feel that both categories of devices should be accessible. Meanwhile, people can visit the original LibraryCity post at http://librarycity.org/?p=11747 and see contact information for reaching Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts, who perhaps can write a legislative fix. I’ve also included an e-mail for the PTA president. The Kindle is the “official” e-reader of the PTA and is being billed as right for families. Shouldn’t the law protect these individual users, regardless of whether they have organizational ties that the disability laws would cover?


  2. Why should readers who don’t need these services have to pay for them? Make more expensive ones for those who need them, and if the government wants to subsidize them , so much the better.

  3. Dear SIGHTED Reader:

    You’re forgetting that TTS and headphone jacks would cost next to nothing to add to E Ink readers, especially the Kindles, which really are content distributors for the same company.

    No TTS even in the $200 Voyage, supposedly the ultimate reading device? Isn’t TTS another form of reading? What’s more, the related audio capabilities would expand the market for Audible audiobooks and actually make money for Amazon in the end. People able to afford a $200 reader like the Voyage would also be prime customers for Audible.

    If nothing else, many sighted people who exercise, etc., would appreciate TTS. And not just for exercise-related reasons or commuting. TTS lets you enjoy a book even when your eyes are tired.

    Add TTS, Jeff Bezos. That would be good business, not just the decent thing to do. Even Ayn Rand might approve.


  4. “You’re forgetting that TTS and headphone jacks would cost next to nothing to add to E Ink readers”

    Nothing is 0 cents. Next to nothing is 1 cent per unit.

    What is the actual development and production cost per unit for your desired features? What will the impact be on unit cost?

    Betcha it’s more than a cent per unit cost increase.

    Why don’t we pass a law saying blind people can see? Surely it’s next to nothing for them to try a little harder.

  5. I don’t have a problem with mandating that one model in a product line being accessible, but not all of the models.

  6. TTS was in Kindles years ago when read-aloud cost more, so we’re hardly talking about busting the bank.

    > Betcha it’s more than a cent per unit cost increase.

    Does this mean that typical Kindle buyers are so cash-strapped that they must worry about paying $2 more or whatever the cost—maybe even less than $1? Even the buyers of the $200 Voyage? We are probably talking less than the price of a Big Mac in the States. Amazon even owns the Ivona TTS company.

    Remember, too, that the Kindle is a content distribution device for Amazon. The related audio capabilities in the Kindle would add to the bottom line by expanding the market for Audible. Not just increase the device’s popularity among those panging for TTS. I’ve made this point before. It bears repeating.

    Why—in this era when corporations together squander hundreds of billions on bloated CEO pay–are any consumers fretting about the tiny difference between a mute Kindle and a read-aloud one?

    Consider all the school kids out there with dyslexia and other learning disorders. Not just the blind.

    A little heart, please.

  7. @Nate: Thanks very much for your further thoughts on costs, but per unit, given the volume, we’re almost surely talking pennies for the modified menus.

    @Tubemonkey: TTS should be in the Paperwhite at the very least, but, yes, ideally in all models–especially the $200 Voyage. I’d feel otherwise if the cost of TTS were higher. But it isn’t.

    • But it’s more than just TTS, there’s also the matter of navigating the pages for the sight impaired. That’s an added expense that doesn’t need to be on every media device made.

      One model is sufficient; more than that is unnecessary.

  8. Sure, let’s wave our magic wand so that physics and costs no longer have any bearing on the discussion…

    Ebook stores and ebooks, TTS, books-on-audio, etc. are available on any number of mass market tablets and smart phones, at nowhere near the high additional cost of more historical/traditional assistive devices… but let’s go ahead and further regulate and tax the already dwindling ultra-compact ultra-visible-in-sunlight ultra-long battery life dedicated e-reader market out of existence…

    Here’s one solution. Get a recent iPhone, iPad Mini or iPad Air. Load desired ebook reader and audio books apps such as Amazon/Nook/Kobo. Turn on Apple’s VoiceOver accessibility feature and you’re good to go. If that’s not sufficient, or not what you want, spend an additional ten bucks for the excellent Dream Voice Reader TTS/proofreading app (also check out the innovative Dream Voice Writer voice/TTS-centric word processing/outlining/proofing app).

    Similar solutions are available for other brands of smart phone, mini-tablet, tablet, laptop and PC of all sizes… and in the Internet itself via web browsers.

    The general rapidly advancing technology and market is delivering ever better ever cheaper assistive technologies, even if/when that isn’t their primary focus, far faster and better than regulation and taxation are or will.

  9. @Tubemoney: Once again, I remind you of the existence of TTS in the Kindle 2. We’re hardly talking big costs. How about one fewer Big Mac—not per week or day, but on just one fewer occasion?

    • Considering what the price difference between eInk readers and tablets are, it wouldn’t take too many Big Macs to breach the difference.

    • I already proposed a compromise. Mandate that one model in a manufacturer’s eink line be accessible and leave the rest of them alone. Surely there can’t be any objections to that.

  10. @Springfield: We’ve covered this ground. The E Ink devices have special advantages such as longer battery life and and lower costs and–when sighted people are reading the usual way—screens without the usual glare.

    I truly, truly hate onerous and expensive regulations and other bureaucratic outrages. But here, we’re talking about an incredibly good cost-to-benefit ratio.

    Are you against all regulations? How about air bags? A disposable requirement?

    • Except that the additional processing needed to manage the conversion to audio AND the powering of the audio jack would drain the battery very quickly.

      Batteries on eInk devices are designed for the drain that the use patterns of those devices entail, changing the use patterns will require changing the design. What we’d end up with is larger, heavier, costlier eReaders. Basically, it will turn eInk readers into the same form factor, at least weight wise, as tablets.

      And there are eInk tablets being manufactured, so if there is some reason that eInk screens are better for some people, then they can acquire them.

  11. “Consider all the school kids out there with dyslexia and other learning disorders. Not just the blind.”

    If it’s so easy, and so inexpensive, and so profitable WHY DON’T YOU DO IT?

    Because it AIN’T so dang easy, inexpensive, and profitable.

    You talk a lot, and want to wave around a nuclear superpower so that you can be the boss of a large corporation you are not the boss of, but you have no legal, moral, or logical basis for using the government to force companies to introduce features in product lines as you see fit.

    That’s absolutely insane, tyrannical, and evil.

    “It’s for the disabled children” is the same line favored by evil politicians the world over.

    If increasing utility and potentially market share and profitibility is the just and sound basis for legislation, then there is no end or line to distinguish between your “good idea” and everybody elses “good idea”, and we can now spend 100000x the GDP on forcing companies to introduce useful features in products as some niche market sees fit.

    You are crazy and on the same dang power trip as near everyone else. Good luck with that!

  12. @Critic: I guess we’re deep into agree-to-disagree territory. I’m talking about less-than-Big Mac costs in $200 E Ink devices (among others) and about decent cost-to-benefit ratios and the rest. And yet you’re acting as if read-aloud to help blind or dyslexic kids–and MANY others—would the end of capitalism. Hey, I myself am a capitalist and a huge fan of Amazon’s better side. I’m just not John Galt. I’ll give you and the others the last word.

  13. @Puzzled: Sorry–can’t resist noting the obvious, given the two new posts from you. You prefer TTS to the backlight at times? Turn off the light. Even with the smaller case and less room for the battery, you’ll still enjoy many hours of TTS without a larger battery.

    As for the Big Mac issue and disposable income—well, we’re talking about a lot of Macs to make up the difference between an iPad and a Paperwhite. By contrast, to get TTS for blind kids and others, we mean just ONE Big Mac. Perhaps even a half. Yes, there are tablets cheaper than the iPad. But they are not as accessible, and all lack the advantages of E Ink.

    OK, another last word from you or the others. And to end on a friendly note, I’m sure there are many issues where I would agree with you and the others, such as on all the regulations in place to prop up special interest groups.

  14. Follow-up note…

    A quick Google search turns up two potential explanations…
    – text-to-speech processing and earphone power consumption
    – the Author’s Guild’s opposition to allowing TTS on Kindles


    There may be additional explanations and history involved.

    • Exactly. It’s not about the cost of the hardware, it’s about TTS cutting into potential audio book sales. Back when Kindles did have TTS Amazon had a battle convincing many publishers to enable it. And I suspect that meant it generated lots of customer service traffic with the inevitable, “Customer: TTS is not working, CSRep: it is it’ s just not enabled for this book.” exchanges. Given that, and its acquistion of Audible, I can see why Amazon abandoned TTS for the cost savings.

      • Except one, Amazon owned Audible before it added TTS to the second Kindle. And two, there’s more to accessibility than just TTS. The menus must also include verbal ques, and that is harder and more expensive.

        And since Amazon also owns Ivona, a TTS specialist, I’m not sure how much is saved by not putting its tech on the E-ink Kindles. After all, it does go into every Fire tablet.

        • “And two, there’s more to accessibility than just TTS. The menus must also include verbal ques, and that is harder and more expensive.”

          This raises another question. Since B&N did not receive a waiver for the Nook Glowlight, how are they able to continue selling it without any of the accessibility features?

  15. Another followup…

    An example Internet article discussing how to use text-to-speech (VoiceOver) with the Kindle Reader app on iOS devices (iPhone, iPad)

    An example YouTube video discussing same…

    I just tested and verified that it works on an iPad Air and an iPhone 6, both running iOS 8.1.

    Note the tip regarding how to selectively turn text-to-speech (VoiceOver) off and on via triple click if you don’t want it on all the time. There’s also a video demonstrating someone using a voice command, presumably via Siri, to turn text-to-speech on.

    Do a search on Google or YouTube on “ios kindle tts” to find the other similar articles and videos demonstrating this.

    Note that publishers have the option of disabling this on a book by book basis. When viewing an e-book’s page on Amazon, one can check this by checking at the Product Details section to see if Text-to-Speech shows as “Enabled”.

  16. Hi everyone,

    Does anyone know when these regulations came / come into effect for all other products? This article discusses the extension for e-books, but I’d be interested to know when this was required for other devices. Thanks!

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