Orange has struck a deal with Wikipedia to make its digital encyclopaedia available free of data charges to millions of mobile phone users across the Middle East and Africa.
The mobile phone operator, which claims that the partnership is the first of its kind in world, has 70 million customers across Africa and the Middle East.
However, the ability to access the internet, and websites such as Wikipedia, is currently limited to about 10 million Orange customers who have mobile devices with 2G or 3G capability.
Sue Gardner, a senior director at Wikipedia who was a key driver behind the plan to take down the English version of the website for 24 hours in protest at proposed US online piracy laws, said that the digital encyclopaedia operated as a public good.
“Wikipedia is an important service, a public good, and so we want people to be able to access it for free, regardless of what device they’re using,” Gardner said. “This partnership with Orange will enable millions of people to read Wikipedia, who previously couldn’t.”
The free service will be launched in 20 markets across 2012, with a spokesman from Orange saying that the aim is to increase the proportion of 2G and 3G phones to 50% of customers by 2015.
Currently, penetration stands at between 7% and 15% across various African and Middle Eastern markets.
“In countries where access to information is not always readily available, we are making it simple and easy for our customers to use the world’s most comprehensive online encyclopaedia,” said Marc Rennard, group executive vice president for Europe, the Middle East and Africa at Orange.
The deal is non-exclusive and other mobile phone partners are expected to follow suit.
This article originally appeared in MediaGuardian.