Telecom company Aircel has partnered with Wikimedia Foundation to offer free access to Wikipedia on mobile phone to Aircel subscribers. Aircel subscribers will be able to access zero.wikipedia.com (text only) and m.wikipedia.com (mobile version) for free of cost in 17 indic languages including English, Hindi, Tamil, among others.
The partnership is a part of Wikimedia Foundation’s Wikipedia Zero program, which focuses on providing accessing Wikipedia to people free of cost. Wikipedia was previously looking to partner with telecom operators in the country and the partnership with Aircel seems to be the first one in the country. Telcos such as Dialog (Sri Lanka), Mobilink (Pakistan), Digi (Malaysia), among others have already brought this project to other Asian countries.
This is not the first time that any telco has partnered with web services to offer free access to the service. In April 2013, RCOM inked a deal with Twitter to launch a new plan – ‘Reliance Twitter Access Pack’ which offered free Twitter access across Twitter.com, Mobile.twitter.com and Twitter’s official mobile apps, to its GSM subscribers for 90 days. In June 2013, RCOM had partnered STAR Sports to offer unlimited live streaming of the ongoing ICC Champions Trophy 2013 tournament on STAR Sports mobile site to its subscribers. In June 2013, Bharti Airtel had partnered with Google to launch Free Zone service that will offer Airtel subscribers with free access to Google services such as Google Search, feature phone friendly version of Gmail and Google Plus.
That said, such kind of deals provides bandwidth and commercial considerations to certain sites, which is not good. Every site should be treated equally, as far as we are concerned.
Typically such partnerships are inked in order to drive more data usage and to be able to monetize these users after the deal period ends. Here it appears that there’s little financial gain from the partnership to the telco. Wikipedia is a free, web-based, collaborative, multilingual encyclopedia project and is used by students across the world to educate themselves on a certain topic. Free access to the crowd source encyclopedia on mobile would be beneficial to students in developing countries where the only access to the Internet is through mobile. As much we would like it to be, data plans from telcos are not really that cheaper that students in low income families can afford.
However, the impact of such program is limited to subscribers who can access the Internet on their mobile phones. India still remains a feature phone market, where 64.1 million were feature phone handsets were shipped in the country between January and April 2013, about 87% of the total handsets shipped. A lot of feature phone handsets these days do come with facility to access the Internet, however, how many are aware on how to use the feature? SMS still remains a strong medium to access information, probably a partnership with Innoz’ 55444.in to provide free Wikipedia on SMS could help. Currently, 55444.in has partnered with Wikipedia to offer its content on 55444 SMS service, however users are charged Re 1 for the SMS.