In Uganda and Kenya, mobile operators allow free access to the online encyclopaedia Wikipedia and learners from Sinenjongo High School in Joe Slovo Park outside Cape Town are lobbying Vodacom, MTN and Cell C to make the service available in SA.
"Our school does not have a library at all so when we need to do research we have to walk a long way to the local library. When we get there we have to wait in a queue to use the one or two computers which have the internet," the letter says.
Telkom-owned 8ta has partnered with Google in a Free Zone programme where the first page of search results and Wikipedia is freely available to registered users.
Most learners from poor communities can often find access to a cellphone, but not a computer. This makes studying and research for school projects difficult, especially when library services may not be available.
"Just this year, in India, high school learners used to club together to pay for data in order to access science and technology articles on Wikipedia. With the roll out of Wikipedia Zero (free Wikipedia for cellphones) in India in late 2012, they now don't have to," said Isla Haddow-Flood WikiAfrica project manager.
"With only 21% of South Africa's schools offering a library, our school children face the same problem. Orange, which currently offers Wikipedia for free on its networks in 18 African and Middle East countries, look upon Wikipedia Zero as a differentiator in a highly competitive market," she added.
MTN and Cell C are said to be considering the proposal, but mobile operators are generally reluctant to give data away as it makes up a large percentage of their revenue.
Vodacom said that it was possible to make a service like this available, but the operator could not commit itself.
"We think this kind of programme is achievable, but we will have to investigate its affordability for a mass rollout," Mthobeli Tengimfene, executive head of the Vodacom Foundation told News24.
The Google Free Zone programme is a way that mobile users can appreciate the value of data and may result in higher consumption, a Google representative said.
"We can't comment on any discussion with any of the other operators, but it's worth saying that by giving away some access - by giving users who otherwise would not be using any data services... the users will understand the value of data, and will actually purchase more data," Bryan Nelson, business development manager for Google SA told News24.
The students acknowledge that they have cellphones, but that data cost is prohibitive.
"Going to an internet café is also not an easy option because you have to pay per half hour. Ninety percent of us have cellphones but it is expensive for us to buy airtime so if we could get free access to Wikipedia it would make a huge difference to us," they say in the letter.
The campaign has a Facebook page and Twitter hash tag #freeData4Wikipedia.
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