Africa's third-largest telecom operator, France's Orange Telecom, is entering into a partnership with Wikimedia Foundation that will grant more than 70 million subscribers in Africa and the Middle East free mobile access to Wikimedia.

The initiative is part of Wikimedia's mobile strategy, which aims to reach billions of people in the world who access the Internet solely on mobile phones. The two companies said the partnership will provide Orange customers in Africa and the Middle East with mobile access to Wikimedia without incurring data usage charges.

The service will be introduced in 20 countries in Africa and the Middle East where Orange Telecom has operations. In Africa, the company has a presence in Kenya, Central Africa Republic, Mauritius and Madagascar, among other countries. It is the third-largest operator, after South Africa's MTN and India's Bharti Airtel.

According to the partnership agreement, any customer connected to the Orange network who has an Internet-enabled phone will be able to access the Wikimedia site either via a browser or through an Orange widget. Customers are also allowed to access Wikimedia Encyclopedia services at no extra charge as long as they stay within Wikimedia Web pages.

The partnership between the two companies shows the growing demand for mobile data services in Africa, with operators now competing on data services as growth slows in more mature markets. The African region is also experiencing an increased supply of data-enabled phones following network upgrades to 3G technology.

The partnership between Orange Telecom and Wikimedia is expected to heighten competition among the region's major operators, even in rural areas. An increase in social network offerings and email usage via mobile phones has fueled the demand for data services and Internet-enabled handsets as users access faster Internet services.