South African learners lobby for data-free Wikipedia access

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A group of grade 11 learners at Sinenjongo High School in Cape Town, South Africa has written four letters to major telecom operators Vodacom, MTN, Cell C and 8ta to address the need for free access to Wikipedia via their mobile phones. This comes after the Wikipedia Zero initiative promoted access of free knowledge in developing countries across the world. Many countries including Kenya, Uganda and India have adopted this policy with successful results in an attempt to reduce the barriers to free knowledge. The four South African telecoms though have since responded with little enthusiasm and support.

Wikipedia Zero is an initiative part of Wikimedia Foundation that aims to enable mobile access, free of data charges, to Wikipedia in developing countries. The Wikimedia Foundation falls under the group of eight mobile initiatives that have received funding through the Knight News Challenge in an attempt to promote democracy and media innovation.

Telecom giant Orange currently offer the Wikipedia service in 18 African and Middle East countries. At the same time, according to data provided by Orange Niger and Orange Kenya, “unique visitors to Wikipedia on their network have jumped 42 percent,” since the launch of the program.

Only 21% of South Africa’s schools offer library services and computer or internet access is extremely limited. As mentioned by Pieter Streicher, managing director of BulkSMS.com and volunteer computer studies teacher at the school, there are a total of 25 computers available at the school. Each student has access to these one hour each week. Apart from this, the only other options include long ques and travels to the public library or expensive internet cafes. Out of all the learners at the school, 90 percent has mobile phones.

The group voices its concerns in the letter stating that the South African “education system needs help and having access to Wikipedia would make a very positive difference.” The group also says that we should “just think of the boost that it will give us as students and to the whole education system of South Africa.” As much as 8 million South Africans have access the internet on their cellphones.

Web.tech.law‘s director Paul Jacobson said: “South African learners in less privileged parts of the country face numerous challenges. Their schools are underfunded and lack adequate resources to meet the children’s educational needs with the result that they are not afforded the opportunities they deserve to achieve their dreams. Technology can help bridge the gaps and perhaps even help these learners overcome them entirely and all it takes are forward thinking companies that have the means to facilitate this.”

Arthur Goldstuck, managing director of World Wide Worx, said that “giving school kids free mobile access to Wikipedia should be a priority for South Africa. It’s a surefire way to solve some of the enormous education challenges we currently face.”

At the time of writing MTN has responded saying that the proposal was being considered at the “highest level.” While 8ta has noted that the Google Free Zone promotion allows some free access to websites, including Wikipedia. While this remains the case, the Google Free Zone trial run by 8ta, ended not too long ago.

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