A group of South African learners are lobbying operators in that country to provide them with free access to Wikipedia.
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The open source encyclopedia is already available for free in a number of countries across North Africa and the Middle East. Pupils at Sinenjongo High School in Cape Town have written to the country’s mobile operators asking them to do the same.
“Our school does not have a library at all so when we need to do research we have to walk a long way to the local library. When we get there we have to wait in a queue to use the one or two computers which have the internet,” the letter says.
One of them has already taken steps toward doing so. 8ta, the country’s youngest cellular operator, recently partnered with Google to set up Free Zone, which allows people to view the first page of Google results as well as Wikipedia.
The service also gives people free access to Gmail and Google+.
South Africa is a typical of a number emerging market countries in that a lot more people have access to phones than desktop computers.
“Just this year, in India, high school learners used to club together to pay for data in order to access science and technology articles on Wikipedia. With the roll out of Wikipedia Zero (free Wikipedia for cellphones) in India in late 2012, they now don’t have to,” said Isla Haddow-Flood WikiAfrica project manager.
“With only 21% of South Africa’s schools offering a library, our school children face the same problem. Orange, which currently offers Wikipedia for free on its networks in 18 African and Middle East countries, look upon Wikipedia Zero as a differentiator in a highly competitive market,” she added.
While the mobile networks have agreed to look into rolling out the programme, they said it would largely depend on the cost.
The pupils meanwhile say that while they can look up the information on their phones, data is often prohibitively expensive. Going to an internet cafe isn’t an ideal option either:
“Going to an internet café is also not an easy option because you have to pay per half hour. Ninety percent of us have cellphones but it is expensive for us to buy airtime so if we could get free access to Wikipedia it would make a huge difference to us,” they say in the letter.