Mai Hassan, a PhD candidate, has found a way to use TV and radio channels to transmit cellular signals when systems are stretched to their limits.
Hassan, in the department of electrical and computer engineering, said the challenge was discovering a way to make sure cellular signals didn't interfere with the people using the channels in the first place.
She said her initial motivation was to get better cellular access when many people are trying to use their phones at the same time.
"If you have an event where there's a large crowd, for example a soccer match, an event such as a film festival or it can be an emergency case where the cellular coverage is (poor)."
Hassan has worked on changing the shape of the wireless signal so it could be transmitted, then changing the direction of the transmission.
Instead of using traditional antennas, she used so-called smart antennas on the mobile phones, which transmit signals that can be steered in one direction.
Hassan said they've found that they can direct the transmission automatically away from TV or radio transmissions in use, just as someone would change their radio channels in their vehicle.
In a study published in a wireless communications journal, Hassan said she was able to transmit calls and texts to a receiver and avoid interference from radio and TV signals.
No such phone is ready to hit the market, and Hassan noted the idea is still in the research phase.
However, she said it wouldn't be an expensive addition to a cellphone because much of the hardware already in place would be used.
"We would need researchers from other disciplines, for example electronic engineers and other disciplines so we aren't at that phase yet."
Hassan did her undergrad and master's studies at Cairo University in Egypt and started her PhD at UBC two years ago.
Shawn Hall, of Telus media relations, said the company builds its networks with redundancies so that in a natural disaster their communication system would operate.
However, he said, Hassan has a fascinating idea that's worth taking a look at because there is a tendency for people to pick up their phones during natural disasters.
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