Editor’s note: Local Tech Wire’s Executive Q&A is a regular feature on Tuesdays. When the Internet bubble burst two years ago, few sectors of the technology industry were hit harder than telecommunications and networking equipment suppliers. Gone were many of the dot-coms that invested heavily in equipment to power their e-commerce engines, and larger companies sharply reduced capital spending to survive a slowdown that continues to dent their revenue and bottom line.

But at Cisco Systems, a few beams of light have been seen.

While Lucent Technologies, Nortel Networks and other networking equipment vendors are fighting for survival, Cisco last month reported its third-quarter sales are slightly up from a year ago, and it posted earnings $729 million, compared with a $2.7 billion loss in the same period of 2001. Industry analysts point to those results as a positive sign for the industry’s future.

“Things will be trending up again,” says Cisco Chairman John Morgridge, who oversees the company’s educational and government initiatives.

Morgridge was in Raleigh last week to announce a $1.8 million commitment of equipment and scholarships to the 39 member campuses of the United Negro College Fund. During his tenure as Cisco chief executive, Morgridge has seen the best of times and, most recently, the difficult times. He took the company public 12 years ago and presided over its growth from $5 million to more than $1 billion in annual revenue, making it one of the fastest-growing companies in the United States.

Following his UNCF announcement, Local Tech Wire grabbed a few minutes with Morgridge to get his feedback on the state of the equipment industry and the future of Cisco’s North Carolina operations, which has sustained layoffs.

Cisco has had some good results in the past few quarters. Is that a sign that the telecommunications and networking market is coming back, or are you just picking up business from competitors who are still treading water?

I’m not the right person to answer that question since I don’t keep up with the operational side of the business anymore. But I would support what (Cisco Chief Executive) John Chambers has said, that in the last quarter, particularly here in the United States, our enterprise business has stabilized, the service provider business still looks pretty spotty and unclear and we’re very cautiously optimistic that things have kind of leveled off and that sometime down the road – you can pick your date since some industries say early next year and some even later – things will begin trending up again.

Do you think the market will ever get back to the heights we saw a couple of years ago?

“Ever” is a long time.

I guess what I would observe is that advances in technology and, more importantly, advances in connectivity present tremendous opportunities for our industry. There is now a movement in the United States and some other countries to ensure that there is high-speed access not only to institutions such as (Shaw University), which our equipment is helping provide here through the donation, but also to people’s homes. The coming about of that kind of capability at a sizable level would have a huge impact on the development of the industry.

North Carolina has a program to wire the rural portions of the state, which would be an example of what you’re talking about, right?

Exactly right. In this country, only about 15 percent (of homes) have high-speed broadband access. In countries like Korea, it’s 50 percent. In places like Singapore, it probably approaches 90 percent. So there’s a big differential, and that’s an opportunity for our industry. I mean not only in terms of equipping that capability but, more importantly, the kind of utilization it will generate, the kind of applications it will enable that will, I think, have a dramatic impact on how we relate to technology and how we use technology.

Some analysts predict that the wireless Internet will surpass traditional computer-based Internet usage in a few years. What kind of impact does that shift have on Cisco and the industry?

If you use the cell phone as an example and its growth in usage, there’s a basis for that argument. I am a believer in the fact that there will be a sizable development of wireless end-devices over the next five years. I think not only the device but the implication of a simplified interface is a huge opportunity and that wireless to a large degree has found its niche.

Certainly, (wireless) is affecting us in terms of our product mix. Already, we’re provisioning wireless capabilities in airports and schools. I mean there are institutions such as this that have wireless capabilities for all of their students. I was out in Iowa a couple of months ago, and there’s a private school in western Iowa that touts itself as a “wireless university,” where you can go anywhere on campus with your computer and have access.

Cisco recently bought several buildings on its campus in Research Triangle Park, but most of them are sitting empty. What do you foresee as the plans for the campus and your presence in this market?

You tell me when the economy is going to turn, and I’ll tell you what the plans are. When the economy turns around, particularly in the business segment – the consumer segment has remained robust over the past year, but what is not happening is business hasn’t kicked in in terms of making investments – we hope to continue building our presence here in RTP and the rest of the company as well.