SAN DIEGO— When it comes to serving rural areas, there are many things that set electric cooperatives apart from their for-profit counterparts.

But in the continuing debate over who will provide true broadband to the heartland, co-ops bring one key cultural advantage: patience.

"Co-ops are accustomed to investing long-term," said Doran Dennis, regional vice president of CoBank. "Telecommunications companies are typically looking for returns that happen in five to seven years."

At the recent Touchstone Energy® Cooperatives NET Conference, Dennis noted that large corporate broadband providers have shown limited interest in co-op-served communities. This creates an opportunity for co-ops to step in, particularly as a way to combat stagnant or declining rural populations.

"Cooperative kids are going off to college, and once they finish, they're choosing not to go back home," he said. Modern workplaces depend on quality communications. "They're choosing to go to the cities to get better jobs."

Dennis said co-ops with fiber-based networks are well-placed to provide broadband service to members, but costs and risks remain major concerns. He recommended looking into partnering with telecommunications cooperatives, other electric co-ops or cable companies to spread the exposure.

"There are partnership models that work," said Dennis.

Jo-Carroll Energy in Elizabeth, Illinois, has provided broadband to its members for 10 years but is just beginning a fiber-to-the-home rollout.

"We only have about 320 people hooked up to fiber now," said Jo-Carroll CEO Mike Casper. "And another 500 are in the pipeline."

Casper said co-ops looking at broadband projects can mitigate risk by first getting commitments from large institutional users, like schools and hospitals, as well as looking to serve adjacent communities to expand their service base.

Ultimately, Casper said, the decision to do broadband boils down to another core cultural principle of electric cooperatives.

"Co-ops exist to enhance the quality of life for our members."

Read More NET Conference Coverage:

Experts: Falling Prices Are Driving Up Interest in Battery Storage

Co-ops Are Preparing for More Consumers, Businesses to Embrace Electric Vehicles

Co-op Key Accounts Managers Meet Unique Needs to Help Grow Business for Members