Students want free mobile Wikipedia
There may soon be free cellphone access to Wikipedia in SA if a group of Grade 11 school learners in Cape Town get their way.
The students, from Sinenjongo High School in Joe Slovo Park, have sent a letter to the four mobile network operators - Vodacom, MTN, Cell C and 8ta - urging them provide student subscribers to their networks with free mobile access to the online, open and collaborative encyclopedia.
The provision of free network access is possible because "the network operators know exactly how much data each MSISDN (the cellphone number) is using on each URL," according to Dr Pieter Streicher, MD of BulkSMS.com and volunteer computer studies teacher at the school.
"It is, therefore, technically possible to zero rate data costs for specific URLs. In the case of free data access to Wikipedia, several operators have implemented this already, indicating that it is not only possible but also feasible."
According to latest statistics from World Wide Worx, about eight million South Africans access the Internet on their cellphones. Of these, 2.48 million have no access to computers at all.
While the rest of SA's 8.5 million Internet users (at the end of 2011) access the Web using computers, laptops and tablets, 90% of them - 5.42 million - also use their cellphones to go online.
"With around 95% of all users in Africa on prepaid, cellphone users are fickle and go for the operator with the best deal," says Isla Haddow-Flood, project manager, WikiAfrica.
"Access to free information and education is a great service to offer to retain customer loyalty. South Africa's operators are continental players; they can play a significant role in ensuring a brighter, better connected future for our children by providing them with access to the knowledge that they so desperately need."
It is estimated that 30% of the Joe Slovo learners have cellphones and 70% access Facebook from their cellphones.
What the learners do not have, however, according to Streicher, is access to computers outside of the school environment.
"The 25 school computers are available to each learner for an hour a week," says Streicher.
"Their alternatives are to walk or take public transport to the nearest library where the learners have to queue to use the few available computers with Internet connectivity, or they have to go to Internet cafes, an expensive option for learners from low income households."
World Wide Worx MD Arthur Goldstuck adds: "With international bandwidth coming to SA set to double in 2013, and our Internet population on track to reach 10 million users by the end of the year, the mobile Internet trend use is only going to escalate.
"Giving school kids free mobile access to Wikipedia should be a priority for SA. It's a surefire way to solve some of the enormous education challenges we currently face."
Wikipedia is an ideal resource for the learners, says Streicher, as it covers all the topics they study at school, and allows them to research topics in more detail and find explanations for new concepts.
Mobile network operators in both Uganda and Kenya have made Wikipedia free to cellphone users as part of the Wikipedia Zero initiative.
According to Wikipedia, most operators will zero-rate the full mobile version of Wikipedia along with a lightweight, text-only version. The latter is ideal for older cellphones that do not have the processing power to handle the regular site.