Sprint Nextel and Reston, Va.-based location-based services vendor SquareLoop jointly announced this week that the wireless carrier will deploy SquareLoop’s Mobile Alert Network in Contra Costa County, Calif. The county is located in the San Francisco Bay area and is the state’s ninth largest county with about 930,000 residents. Sprint is the first carrier to agree to deploy the network, which will be used to push emergency alerts to Sprint subscribers living and working in the county.

One of the network’s attractions is its ability to geographically target alert recipients, said Art Botterell, manager, community warning system, for the Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Department.

“The ‘biggie’ for us is that here is a feasible way for us to target these messages down to a few blocks if we need to,” Botterell said. “New York City, for example, is very sensitive about this issue because they had that steam pipe explosion, and they wanted to address an eight-block area, and they didn’t have any technology that would let them do that.”

Botterell added that emergency alert technology has evolved well beyond simple text messages thanks in large part to advancements in handset technology. “You can have distinctive ringbones, you can transmit pictures, you could even have a wireless milk carton for missing kids,” he said. “That’s one of the things we’re really interested in—it gives us so much flexibility in terms of the user experience.”

However, location-based, emergency alert technologies generally leverage global positioning system, or GPS, technology embedded in wireless handsets. Whenever GPS is present, privacy issues loom, which is why alert services historically have been made available to subscribers on an opt-in basis. This creates a problem for both public safety and wireless carriers, according to Botterell.

“One of the big challenges has been, how do we get geographic targeting without it turning into a big database-management issue for the carriers, and without it becoming invasive to people’s personal privacy,” he said. “Nobody wants to be tracked by their cell phone.”

SquareLoop solved the privacy problem by creating an application that resides on the subscriber’s handset and which executes an authentication handshake, according to Joe Walsh, the company’s chief operating officer.

“When we send a message out, we embed an authentication key, the location where the message is valid and a timeframe,” Walsh said. “That application grabs the message and asks, ‘Am I in the right location?’ If the answer is yes, it displays the message. If the answer is, ‘No I’m not,’ it will ignore the message. That way, we don’t need to know where the subscriber is to target a message to them. It’s almost a message-filtering capability.”

Walsh added that SquareLoop is talking to other wireless carriers about deploying the alert platform. For Sprint, the decision to become the first carrier to jump on board was easy, according to Chris Hackett, Sprint’s vice president for public sector sales programs.

“The FCC is already looking at this as an issue and how to address it, and we as a carrier want to be as proactive as possible, so we decided to go down this path,” Hackett said. “Ultimately, we think that’s the right thing to do for all of our customers and we assume that eventually the other carriers will get on board—they just haven’t gotten there yet.”

But Hackett added that Sprint hopes its proactive embracing of SquareLoop’s platform will provide it with a competitive advantage in the public safety marketplace.

“It strengthens the relationship we have with first responders and differentiates us to first responders because of their understanding that Sprint is focused on the needs of first responders and developing solutions so that they can more safely do their jobs,” he said. “We want to make sure we’re seen in that light.”