By Jasmin Melvin
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Pushing for U.S. regulatory and congressional action to free up airwaves to handle the burgeoning use of wireless devices will be the top policy initiative of the consumer electronics industry in 2011, the head of a trade group said on Tuesday.
Gary Shapiro, president and chief executive of the Consumer Electronics Association, told reporters he would like to see next year's Congress take quick action on spectrum reform.
Shapiro said telecommunications issues have traditionally been less partisan, and he believes Republican Representative Fred Upton, who will head the House Commerce and Energy Committee next year, intends to continue this bipartisan approach to the sector.
A looming spectrum crunch threatens to curb investments and halt innovation of new wireless devices at a time when more and more consumers are turning to mobile devices to surf the Web.
Some 77 million smartphones were shipped in the fall of 2010, while app downloads on phones like Apple Inc's iPhone and Research in Motion Ltd's BlackBerry surged from 300 million in 2009 to 5 billion in 2010.
Consumers could face clogged networks, more dropped calls and slower connection speeds on wireless devices if the nation's spectrum is not used more efficiently.
The Obama administration in June endorsed making 500 megahertz of spectrum available over the next 10 years to meet the growing demand for wireless services.
The Federal Communications Commission, which manages commercial spectrum licenses, and the Commerce Department, which oversees government spectrum, have been working together to locate unused spectrum.
The Commerce Department last month identified 115 megahertz of spectrum that could be reallocated to wireless broadband, and the FCC hopes to repurpose 120 megahertz of spectrum from television stations through voluntary incentive auctions.
Broadcasters like CBS Corp and owners of affiliates, like Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc and LIN TV Corp, would voluntarily give up spectrum under the FCC's proposal, and receive a portion of the proceeds from the auction of their airwaves.
Lawmakers would have to give the FCC the authority to conduct airwave auctions and divert some of the revenue from the U.S. Treasury.
Shapiro said his group would urge lawmakers to move forward on incentive auctions.
He also noted the economic benefit of the auctions in helping to reduce the deficit.
"The biggest threat to our industry is the health of the U.S. economy," Shapiro said.
The auction of broadcast airwaves to wireless companies following the 2008 transition to digital television generated $19 billion for the U.S. Treasury.
(Editing by Steve Orlofsky)