Airtel teams with Wikipedia for SMS article delivery

Emerging markets operator group Airtel has teamed up with the Wikimedia foundation to provide free access to Wikipedia via mobile devices. Wikipedia Zero will provide Wikipedia access to 70 million new users in sub-saharan Africa, starting in Kenya.

Wikipedia is testing a service to allow access to its articles via SMS. The firm said it can work with even the most basic feature phone, without the need for a smartphone application. The firm said that such technology enables it to reach a group of people that it has never been able to reach before: mobile phone customers who don’t have internet access.

Users can search for an article in the same way people already use their phone to check their balance or add airtime; a subscriber simply dials *515# on their phone, and they’ll get a text message inviting them to search Wikipedia. The subscriber enters a topic in the same manner they would send a text message and can then select any Wikipedia article. At this point, about a paragraph of the article is sent to the phone via text, and the subscriber can respond to continue reading that article.

The Wikimedia Foundation added that it partnered with the Praekelt Foundation, a South African nonprofit with expertise in text messaging, to develop the necessary technology for the project.

“Their service acts as a bridge that communicates between the Wikipedia servers and the Airtel network, converting the customer’s request for articles into the interactive menus and SMS delivery shown above,” explained Dan Foy, technical partner manager at the Wikimedia Foundation.

“We’re launching this service with Airtel Kenya as a three-month pilot in order to learn more about how well this works in practice. From the lessons we learn from this pilot, we hope to eventually make this service widely available to reach the billions of people who have mobile phones, but cannot afford access to the internet.”

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