How is Digicel making Wikipedia free?

Originally published in the Trinidad Guardian on December 11, 2014

Wikipedia's website
Wikipedia’s website

On Tuesday, Digicel announced that it would be making access to the Wikipedia database of user generated information on a range of subjects available for free.

It joins 41 operators in 34 countries who today participate in the Wikipedia Zero initiative and will be available in 31 markets served by the telecommunications company across the Caribbean, Central America, and Asia Pacific.

First to receive the service will be Digicel’s customers in Haiti, where the company has four million mobile subscribers.

The project was started by Wikimedia, the parent organisation which manages Wikipedia in 2012, and has since won the 2012 Africa News Innovation Challenge, the Knight News Challenge and the SXSW Interactive Award for Activism (both in 2013).

Smartphone users download the Wikipedia Zero app, available for iOS and Android using a WiFi connection and when they use the software without WiFi, the participating operator allows access to the website without billing the customer.

The practice is known as zero rating and Digicel currently uses this system for its subscribers who access its internal administrative web pages and use the LoopTT software created by its subsidiary media organisation.

In an expansion on its press release, Digicel explained that customers only need a data enabled mobile phone and a Digicel SIM to access Wikipedia Zero and the service will be available in all its markets over the next few weeks.

The telecommunications company also plans to work with the Wikipedia Foundation on initiatives “to encourage the use of Wikipedia and to teach young people how to use Wikipedia as a research tool.”

Wikipedia is the largest collection of free knowledge ever assembled. It is a collaborative creation by volunteer editors from all over the world. Across its more than 280 language versions Wikipedia contains more than 33.5 million articles, attracting nearly half a billion unique visitors every month and more than 20 billion monthly page views. Every month roughly 70,000 people actively edit Wikipedia.

The website has sometimes fallen victim to information vandalism, particularly on sensitive subjects when it tracks information on electoral races and candidates, but Wikimedia has implemented systems that lock such pages during particularly heated times and the system’s volunteer editors are normally quick to repair misinformation.