India is just as innovative as the US or China, Verizon executive says

People stand in the reception area at Flipkart's Bengaluru headquarters in June 2016
Namas Bhojani | Bloomberg | Getty Images

India is just as big a player in tech innovation as China or the U.S., according to a senior executive at one of the world's largest telecoms providers.

Speaking to CNBC at the One Young World conference in London on Friday, Ronan Dunne, executive vice president and CEO of Verizon Consumer, said a widely held view that tech innovation was a two-player race misrepresented the real competitive state of technology and telecoms.

"India's probably as big a force in globalization these days in the telecommunications industry as China or the United States," he said. "So this idea that it's an arms race between China and the U.S., I think misrepresents that."

Verizon, which expanded its operations in India over 10 years ago, was the first company in the U.S. to roll-out 5G. It launched the superfast mobile internet technology in Chicago and Minneapolis back in April.

"We recognize that in the global industry, innovation comes from everywhere," Dunne told CNBC.

"We're trying to make sure that we expose ourselves as much to the best of innovation wherever it's happening in the world, and in that regard, we don't really see a U.S.-China dimension. We see a much more global dimension, which I think is a really good thing."

Innovation in India

India has emerged as a strong marketplace for innovation in recent years, with lawmakers implementing policies aimed at cementing the country's position as a global competitor.

In 2016, the Indian government launched the Atal Innovation Mission, a flagship program focused on developing and scaling domestic start-ups across all sectors.

Last year saw the launch of the India-Israel Innovation Fund, a cooperation between the two countries aimed at supporting their companies' research and development projects.

Between 2016 and 2019, India climbed from 81st to 52nd place in Cornell University's Global Innovation Index, with researchers naming the country as the most innovative economy in Central and Southern Asia this year.

Dunne told CNBC he spent the summer visiting telecoms carriers across India to get an insight into how they were innovating and building their networks.

"Most of them are serving hundreds of millions of consumers," he said. "They're building handsets at $15 that can run TV on a two-inch by two-inch screen, because the average monthly bill for a consumer in India is about $3."

With a population of 1.3 billion people, Dunne added, India is the largest consumer market in the world outside of China.

"It's a fabulously interesting marketplace because (it has) a widening middle class, widening access to education and widening access to connectivity, so the pace of change in India is truly transformational," he told CNBC. "Sometimes we presume that the best of things are only happening in the Western world, and that's simply not the case."

However, some analysts have expressed skepticism over India's position as a world leader on technological breakthroughs.

Speaking to CNBC on the phone Thursday, Sanjay Mathur, ANZ's chief economist for Southeast Asia and India, said he didn't agree that India could compete with China or the United States.

"Whether you're looking at it in terms of technology or making products that could increase market share of global exports, India is lacking on that," he said. "There are pockets where India has done reasonably well, but they are few and far between."

Mathur explained that there were structural constraints on India's innovation potential.

"We haven't had much foreign direct investment (FDI) in the manufacturing sector," he said, noting that this was an important platform to help small and medium-sized firms grow and innovate. "That's something China has done very well. I also think R&D (research and development) spending elevated to corporate and university level has been slipping."

Innovation was also being held back because medium-sized enterprises in India were struggling to grow into globally innovative companies, while banks were reluctant to provide funding for firms that weren't traditional brick-and-mortar businesses, Mathur added.

"I don't see India catching up with the U.S. or China any time soon," he told CNBC.

Meanwhile, Shumita Deveshwar, senior director of India Research at TS Lombard, noted that India still fell far behind the U.S. in the Global Innovation Index.

"India doesn't have the infrastructure resources or the money for R&D that is available in the U.S. or China," she said in an email on Wednesday.

The U.S. and China were ranked third and 14th respectively in 2019's index.

"That said, India has a very strong start-up culture and a few but very strong educational institutions, as well as corporates, that focus on innovation," Deveshwar added. "The government has also been making efforts to create a better and more competitive environment for innovation in India, but we still have a long way to go before we can catch up to China and the United States."