Wireless phone operator Orange and Wikipedia have struck a deal that will make the online encyclopedia's digital content available free of data charges to millions of phone users across Africa and the Middle East.

The announcement, in which both firms claim it's the first deal of its kind, will open Wikipedia up to around 70 million customers in the region. Currently, the ability to access websites is limited to around 10 million Orange customers with 2G and 3G access. The wireless provider estimates market penetration to be between 7-15 percent across its various African and Middle East markets.

The partnership will be launched across Orange's 20 markets throughout 2012, with the company stating their aim is to increase the number of 2G and 3G handsets to around 50 percent of their customers by 2015.

"Wikipedia is an important service, a public good, and so we want people to be able to access it for free, regardless of what device they're using," said Sue Gardner, a senior director at Wikipedia. She continued, "this partnership with Orange will enable millions of people to read Wikipedia who previously couldn't."

The partnership is not exclusive and in fact other mobile carriers providing wireless services in the two regions will likely follow Orange's lead to offer Wikipedia access without data charges in the coming months.

"In countries where access to information is not always readily available, we are making it simple and easy for our customers to use the world's most comprehensive online encyclopedia," said Marc Rennard, Orange vice-president for Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

In order to get the best coverage, and to take advantage of network discounts, mobile phone users living in Africa and the Middle East often use more than one network. The French company hopes that offering Wikipedia's service free of data charges to its customers will build up brand loyalty.