Durban - It started with a letter from a class of Grade 11 pupils who did not have a school library, and culminated in a Neknomination. Now, MTN has become the first of South Africa’s cellular network operators to agree to provide its subscribers with access to Wikipedia free of data charges.
It was two years ago that pupils from Sinenjongo High in the Joe Slovo Park township in the Western Cape first started petitioning to get free access to the online encyclopedia on their cellphones, to help them with their schoolwork.
Moved by their appeal, a team from the Wikimedia Foundation flew to the country to film their request.
In the video clip, the pupils explain that while 90 percent of them had cellphones, they could not afford to buy a lot of airtime, and that in Kenya and Uganda, free access to Wiki-pedia was already a reality.
Shortly thereafter The Mercury published an open letter from Stellenbosch University education researcher Nic Spaull, addressed to chief executives of Vodacom, MTN and Cell C, challenging them to “put the world’s knowledge in the hands of millions of South African youths”.
Last week, tea brand Five Roses threw down the gauntlet in the form of a Neknomination – in keeping with the local trend of putting a positive spin on the worldwide drinking game.
MTN responded with a video clip of its own to the pupils of Sinenjongo, telling them that it would grant their wish.
Asked if it would follow suit, Vodacom said it was exploring a programme to give pupils free access to educational content that was “broader than Wikipedia”.
Telkom Mobile said that it was evaluating its options on how to offer free access to Wiki-pedia as a standalone value added service.
Cell C had not yet responded by the time of going to press.
Spaull expressed his excitement, saying that people did not realise what a difference free access to information made for children living in poor and isolated areas.
“A 2010 survey showed that only 13 percent of schools have any access to the internet and if we exclude Gauteng and the Western Cape that figure plummets to five percent. Yet many of these children have phones that could access Wikipedia if not for the data charges which have now been waived on MTN. So this is really exciting,” Spaull said.
MTN’s free Wikipedia access will be effective from the end of the month. - The Mercury