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NLS: That All May Read

Alternatives for Future Operations

Section 3 - Technological Changes and Potential New Providers of Services

This section of the report presents a discussion of some of the known major technological changes that will likely affect program evolution, as well as some potential new providers of services in the program.

3.1 Broadband Internet, Internet Service Providers, and the FCC

Increasing availability of high-speed Internet access, or broadband will likely be the most influential factor affecting the evolution of the program in the future for program users. The propensity for patrons to use this delivery method for books and magazines in both audio and braille formats will also increase in the future.

NLS does not have a current direct estimate of the number of users in the program who currently have broadband Internet service.  The most recent estimate of the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) is that 42 percent of “people with disabilities” (in the general population) have broadband.  The FCC also found that 35 percent of people over 65 years of age (in the general population) have broadband.  It is likely that the proportion of program users who have broadband is lower than that of the general population, although this is not certain.  The crux of the issue will be to provide broadband to program users who would not otherwise have it.

NLS has been investigating the possible methods for broadband Internet delivery of program content to program users, the availability of which may vary among program users over a period of several years into the future.  Broadband coverage, especially wireless coverage, is also not currently uniform throughout the United States and varies both in geographic areas covered and the quality of the signals (the higher the data transfer speed used, the better the signal quality required).

As far as wireless broadband is concerned, the current technology for wireless data transfer is third generation (3G).  A more recent type of wireless data transfer known as long-term evolution, developed by the Third Generation Partnership Project, is being implemented. Fourth-generation (4G) technology, which provides increases in both speed and capacity for wireless high-speed data transfer relative to 3G technology, is already implemented in New York; Baltimore; and Washington, D.C.

It is likely several wireless Internet connect options will be available to program users in the future, with some program users having broadband provided by cable, FIOS, or satellite.  But program users possessing a minimum of technical skills must also have access content that is Internet-delivered.

The FCC has recently announced an ambitious plan to provide broadband Internet access to virtually all households, libraries, and businesses in the United States that currently do not have it because of limitations in geographic coverage (primarily in rural areas) and/or the ability to pay for the service, by 2020.  The objective is to raise the proportion of U.S. households with broadband from the current 65 percent to 90 percent.  The FCC intends to do so through a combination of ground and wireless broadband delivery by fostering more competition among Internet Service Providers (ISP) through both regulation of services and subsidizing additional infrastructure for broadband expansion; using some of the wireless spectrum now used by TV broadcasters for wireless broadband delivery to households, possibly including a free wireless service to low-income households; and possibly through tax credits for providing service to households whether via ground or wireless delivery.  There is also the possibility that the FCC could mandate that some quantity of commercial ISP broadband capacity (whether an absolute or relative measure) be provided to lower-income citizens as a “public service.”

Given these factors, there is good reason to believe that broadband Internet access can ultimately be provided to all program users; it is the specific timetable for this implementation that is uncertain.  Clearly program users would be eligible for any type of publicly subsidized broadband service like that planned by the FCC, given that they are now eligible for delivery of program materials via USPS Free Matter.  Furthermore, it may very well be possible in the future to transfer some of the subsidy funds now paid to the USPS for delivery of Free Matter to ISPs, who will provide broadband service to program users—a government-subsidized system that simply uses a different method for content delivery.

3.2 BARD Upgrades and Improvements

The current BARD system will have to be expanded in the future, with it server capacity delivered to several geographic locations (users in the Western states already apparently report slower response times from the system than do other users).

With computer power becoming less expensive and web-site technology having advanced considerably, many websites now are able to interact with users, for example prompting them to “try this if you liked that,” and delivering content “in the background.”  There is also the potential to make better use of Internet bandwidth for data transfer, possibly delivering content during underutilized time periods; this consideration is particularly appropriate considering that, some program users may be receiving broadband Internet from an ISP that is subsidized by the federal government who, in providing that service in such a capability, could more easily facilitate such an arrangement.

The interface between library information systems and CMLS, which BARD relies upon indirectly for authentication and authorization of BARD users, is currently not seamless and requires manual intervention.  A system in which a single “point of contact” is used for sign in and password would be an improvement when, for instance, a program user moved from the domain of one network library to another there would be a single repository of information.

There is the further possibility of including local and special interest material on BARD that may not pass NLS QA standards, and be made available as two classes of audio content (passed and not passed) on the system.  This presents a logistical efficiency versus multiple network libraries developing their own BARD-like systems for delivery of the same content.

3.3 Reallocation of USPS Subsidy

As cited above, possibly the portion of the subsidy that is paid to the USPS for delivery of Free Matter materials for the program could be rerouted to compensate ISPs for providing broadband service to program users for facilitating the very downloads that eliminated the need for the USPS deliveries (whatever the method of broadband service provided by the ISP).  Since the majority of Free Matter deliveries are for audiobooks—and this will be precisely the workload shifting to Internet delivery as BARD downloads account for an increasing share of circulation—this shift may ultimately be for a substantial portion of the USPS subsidy, which totals approximately $75,000,000 annually.

3.4 DTBM Upgrades

The DTBM as built will not receive wireless data directly.  However, the DTBM could evolve by using a device that could be attached to the unit for receiving wireless Internet data  that, together with some software changes in the machine, could potentially enable users to access wireless Internet content using the existing machine.  It will also likely make economic sense to use off-the-shelf modems for program users’ specific wireless data services.  A further significant step in this direction being examined by NLS is the ability of libraries or NLS to “push” reading content wirelessly to users’ DTBMs using broadband.

As mentioned in 3.8, if some form of solid-state data-storage technology replaces flash memory in the future, the NLS DB cartridge could incorporate such a change.  Therefore, the DTBM could continue to use the current DB cartridge with the new memory.

3.5 Text-to-Speech Technology

Text-to-Speech technology has been improving incrementally, i.e., the ability to mimic human speech and the general quality of the audio produced has improved, and it is likely to continue to improve at approximately the same rate in the future. 

The reproduction of speech is imperfect, however, particularly with regards to the ability to reproduce the emphases and emotions in speech that a human narrator can make.  These shortcomings make text-to-speech technology unsuitable for many of the audio materials that NLS currently produces.  However, if further strides in the technology are made, it may be satisfactory for some of the audio materials that NLS produces in the future; these would likely be materials of an expository nature wherein the value of human emotion in the narration is of minimal relative value.

It is also possible that NLS could offer as a service to program users the conversion of print titles (not already in the NLS collection as audiobooks or as a work-in-progress), upon user request, to audio format using the text-to-speech technology or application that NLS deems appropriate.  The files for the materials could then be added to BARD and made available for download to that user or any other users.  It would be understood that the audio quality would be below that of a narrated book, and be available for download only and not on NLS mass-duplicated cartridges.

3.6 Speech-Recognition Technology

Speech-recognition technology, i.e., the ability of a computer system to recognize human speech and then act upon the spoken word, has seen improvements in recent years (as has voice-recognition technology, which differentiates the sounds produced by one individual versus that of another individual and seeks to make a unique match).  It may be that speech-recognition technology can be employed in the program in a manner that aids some users in placing orders for materials verbally and thus obviating the need for either completing out hard-copy order forms or keying in data.  It is not clear what, if any, role that voice-recognition technology would play in future operations.

3.7 Commercial Audiobooks

NLS produced a limited number of audiobook titles in 2009 using commercial audiobooks as the source (the NLS contract has a limit of 200 titles annually).  These titles were first selected for production by the NLS Collection Development Section based exclusively upon their content, and then it was determined that production from a commercial version was feasible (i.e., the works were unabridged).

The navigation in these commercially produced books is relatively limited and deemed unsuitable for program users as-is, so further navigation mark ups of these titles are required and performed by NLS book producers, including the addition of metadata.  There are also musical scores in some titles that must be edited out by NLS book producers. The narration quality for some commercial audio titles is considered to be below that of NLS-produced titles because there is apparently more use of theatrical voices, etc., that is generally not desired by program users.  Lastly, but very importantly, many commercial titles are abridged, making them unsuitable for production by NLS.

There are, however, two advantages to using commercial audiobook titles for the program.  The first is that NLS can produce the audiobook titles (the narration master, net of any mass-duplicated copies) beginning with the commercial version for an average cost of 70 percent–78 percent of a title produced conventionally (about $3,500 versus $4,500–$5,000 per title).  The second reason is that the book can be produced more quickly starting with the commercial audiobook and thus be made available to program users almost at the same time that print versions reach book retailers.  To use commercial audiobooks, NLS must currently buy performance copyrights from commercial audiobook publishers.

Commercial audiobooks are currently available primarily on CD and by download.  Those on CD are relatively expensive, with $50 a typical retail price for a bestseller.  It is unclear how relatively popular commercial audiobooks will be in the future with the sighted population given the availability of new portable reading devices (e.g., Kindle) and it may be that popularity, and hence commercial offerings, may continue increasing, stay the same, or decline in the future.  Audible is a commercial service for audiobooks that has a large library (50,000–60,000 titles) and targets the sighted audience.  Google Books are Internet-based and are text-only, not audio, and must be converted to audio format.  Bookshare is another service that does not produce narrated audiobooks but rather synthesized speech books, which is organized by volunteers who scan print books that are converted to audio using synthesized speech.

Some commercial audiobooks are now being offered from public libraries.  The depth and breadth of what these offerings will actually be in the future in public libraries is unclear.

3.8 Flash Memory Availability and Price

It is likely that flash memory will be available for some time into the future.  But even if it is not, the Universal Serial Bus connector standard should outlive flash memory and enable the production of new DB cartridges (if required) using the memory technology that would replace flash memory.

While it is envisioned that flash memory will remain in a price range suitable for the purposes used now in the program, it is unlikely that it will become so inexpensive that it can be used for disposable (i.e., one-way) DB cartridges for audio magazines given the NLS budget for production of books.  For this reason, NLS is currently evaluating the feasibility of using flash cartridges for audio magazines that would contain both the current issues of all NLS-produced magazine titles and the programming instructions for the DTBM for playing those titles and issues. These cartridges would be returned by users for reconditioning and reuse rather than being disposed of.

3.9 Public Libraries

It is possible that these public libraries that are not involved in the free library program (i.e., most of the SRLs are part of public libraries) may play a larger role in the program in the future, but it is unclear exactly what that role would be.  Public libraries are currently busy despite alternatives to reading such as TV and Internet access within residences, because they are the only source of free print and audio materials and Internet access for many people during an economic downturn.  The completion of many tasks on the Internet is now mandatory (e.g., for many job applications), and library staff are busy assisting the general public with these matters in addition to providing more traditional library services.

However, many public libraries are currently experiencing budget reductions and simultaneously experiencing a surge in demand for free print and audiobooks and Internet access, making the near-future an unlikely time to introduce any significant new workload from the Books for the Blind Program onto public libraries.  Additionally, it first needs to be determined more specifically (1) public libraries capabilities with regard to performing some of the services required for the program, as well as (2) the direction(s) in which the public libraries plan to proceed (e.g., will they be offering more and/or different audiobooks.).

There are a large number of public libraries and one concern is the great variation in service quality that may vary greatly throughout the system. It is also unlikely that further dispersion of book collections in DB, RC, or BR formats, below that of the existing RL/SRL storage and distribution structure, can be made because it is costly and inefficient.

3.10 Software Reader

NLS has considered the use of a software reader for playing digital audiobooks, but this is currently not a viable option. Digital Rights Management (DRM) cannot currently be implemented using a software reader to a degree of reliability that is satisfactory for protecting publisher copyrights, a necessity for reading materials used in the program.  This appears to be especially true for desktop and laptop systems and, if such technology could be implemented, it currently appears that it would more likely work in a cell phone/iPhone environment, provided if NLS could develop an application that would apply DRM (this environment is apparently more difficult to crack encryption codes within). 

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Posted on 2013-06-28