[NAIROBI] Millions of people in Africa and the Middle East will be able to benefit from free, unlimited access to the online encyclopaedia Wikipedia through their mobile phone, starting later this year.
The scheme targets the region's 70 million customers of the mobile network provider Orange, who will be given free access to Wikipedia on their internet-enabled 'smart' phones.
The deal struck between Orange and the Wikimedia Foundation, a non-profit organisation that operates Wikipedia, will allow Orange customers to read and download information from Wikipedia without the usual data usage charges.
"Price is a strong barrier to people accessing the Internet, particularly in Africa," said Vanessa Clarke, spokesperson for Orange.
But the project will face several challenges, according to local experts.
Catherine Ngahu, chair of the Kenya ICT Board, said few people in the region own a 'smart' phone that can connect to the internet.
"Although there is increasing ownership of smart phones, there is still a large number of people who cannot afford them," she told SciDev.Net. "In order to widen reach, Orange should consider marketing lower cost smart phones."
Michael Njuku of the Kenya Revenue Authority said obstacles will range from low quality mobile handsets people own to a network provider's ability to handle the increased Internet traffic as customers try to access Wikipedia, sometimes millions at a time.
"Governments in Africa must also do more to ensure that poor quality counterfeit gadgets are not imported into their countries," he said.
Clarke said the scheme will be rolled out in mid-2012, initially in about eight countries, and by December some 20 countries will benefit.
She said between seven and 15 per cent of Orange customers in Africa and the Middle East currently have phones that access the Internet, but the company plans to increase the proportion to 50 per cent by 2015.
Kul Wadhwa, head of Mobile and Business Development at the Wikimedia Foundation, said he expects the scheme to encourage more people in Africa to read, contribute and download information from Wikipedia.
Wikipedia is the world's largest online encyclopaedia, maintained by a global community of volunteers. It contains explanations of many scientific terms and issues, and some have suggested it could be used to share scientific knowledge.
More mobile network operators are expected to follow suit in the coming months, according to Wadhwa.