Phones are terrific today. They can play games and watch videos and check email - they are just terrible at making calls.

And during a natural disaster, when too many people take to their mobile phones at once, cellular networks easily overload.   Mai Hassan, a PhD student in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of British Columbia, has developed a solution to ensure that calls don't get dropped and texts make it to their destination.

Hassan found a way to opportunistically use television and radio channels to transmit cellular signals when systems are pushed beyond capacity.

"I proposed a more effective way to use any channel in the neighborhood, even if those channels are being used by radio or television stations," said Hassan. "The challenge was finding a way to make sure the cellular signals didn't interfere with the people using those channels in the first place."

Hassan's solution involved changing the shape of the wireless signal so she could transmit on channels that use radio or television frequencies. She then had to change the direction of transmission away from the original channel. Instead of using traditional antennas, which transmit signals in all directions, she used smart antennas in mobile phones.

Smart antennas transmit signals in a single direction and can steer the beam to any direction.

By manipulating the direction of the cellular signals, Hassan was able to transmit calls and texts to a receiver while avoiding any interference with the original radio and televisions signals.

Upcoming in IEEE Transactions on Wireless Communications, no DOI yet.