The undeniable progress that America has made toward Dr. King’s dream of equal economic and educational opportunity for all Americans was on full display at last summer’s 50th anniversary celebration of the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. But Dr. King likely understood – as must we – that the distance we’d have to travel on this journey was never fixed; rather, the road ahead of us seems to extend with every new civil rights challenge.

Think about education equality. Fifty years ago, civil rights leaders were still working through resistance to desegregation post-Brown, fighting to ensure that equal access to school facilities would translate into equal opportunities for children of color to get ahead. Today, in addition to the challenge of unequal access to classrooms we also need to address unequal access to learning technologies at home.

The age of electronic learning

Schools are rapidly embracing the era of the connected classroom. Electronic textbooks, online tutoring and other digital resources hold the promise of bringing equal access to educational resources regardless of where a child lives, goes to school, or who their parents are. There is no denying the trend: 75 percent of school districts have students enrolled in full- or part-time (“blended”) online learning, and 82 percent of high school administrators had at least one student enrolled in a fully online course. Static, printed textbooks that are obsolete before their ink is dry are giving way to electronic textbooks with dynamic content and interactive modules that require connectivity.  The president recently recognized this challenge instituting the ConnectED initiative to expand students’ access to digital learning resources in the classrooms across our country.

But connected textbooks and classrooms won’t prepare our students for success if they spend the other half of their day completely disconnected from these amazing tools. According to the FCC, 71 percent of teens use the Internet as the primary source for school projects while 65 percent go online at home to complete their homework. A home broadband connection allows children to extend learning beyond the school walls. It also provides a tool for parents to engage more in their child’s learning and with their child’s teachers.

That’s why the persistent digital divide that disproportionately strands families of color without access to broadband has become one of the most critical civil rights challenges for the 21st Century. The digital learning tools that broadband enables are quickly creating separate and inherently unequal learning environments for those children who do not have a home connection.

Broad access to broadband needed

The research tells us that 64 percent of African-Americans have adopted broadband at home compared to 74 percent of white Americans. It also tells us that 54 percent of Americans with annual incomes of less than $30,000 have adopted broadband whereas 88 percent of Americans with annual incomes of over $50,000 have done so. And while the likelihood of broadband adoption drops dramatically among low-income families, the price of broadband service is not the most important factor cited by non-adopters. Rather, it’s the perceived lack of relevance of the Internet to their daily lives, a lack of digital skills, and quite commonly the lack of a computer in the home. All of these factors can be remedied, but not easily – and no one has ever attempted to fix them all at once.

That’s why Comcast created Internet Essentials, which has become the nation’s largest program ever to close the digital divide among low-income families.

Internet Essentials was designed to address the three biggest barriers to broadband adoption – the lack of digital literacy, the need for a computer at home, and the cost of Internet service – by offering families with children eligible for the National School Lunch Program the opportunity to buy our broadband service for under $10 a month, the option to purchase a computer for under $150 and free digital literacy training.

Internet Essentials: Making a huge impact

In the first 22 months since launch, more than 220,000 low-income families or approximately 900,000 low-income Americans have been connected to broadband as a result of Internet Essentials, many for the first time. To put that in perspective, 900,000 people is about the size of Jacksonville, FL or San Francisco, CA – or the combined populations of Miami and Atlanta.  When you are successful in connecting the equivalent of entire cities to the Internet, you know you are making real and meaningful progress to help close the digital divide in America.

Of course, simply making this offer was never going to be enough. Convincing families who had never before used the Internet that signing up is important – not only to them but to their children’s future – takes a village. And in every one of the more than 4,000 communities Comcast serves, we have been fortunate to have the help of our school districts, and almost 7,000 community-based organizations including communities of faith, government agencies and elected officials, who have not just publicized Internet Essentials, but also dedicated themselves to eradicating the digital divide.

Road to digital equality still long

And yet, like any civil rights challenge, we have still a long road ahead of us to march. Behind the 220,000 homes we’ve connected thus far stand thousands more, each likely unaware of the vast educational and economic potential that a broadband connection can bring to them and, more importantly, to their children.

We will continue to march ahead, arm-in-arm with our community partners, for as along as it takes to complete this important work – and we invite all the help we can get.

If you are a parent, educator, government official or community leader you can join in this effort to help get more families connected at home by visiting www.InternetEssentials.com and clicking on the “Partner” button.  Families looking to enroll in the program can call 1-855-846-8376.

Bret Perkins serves as Vice President of External and Government Affairs for Comcast Corporation. In this role he is responsible for the headquarters’ Government Affairs team in Philadelphia, as well as the Company’s outreach efforts to third-party groups. TheGrio.com is a division of NBCUniversal, whose parent company is Comcast.