It’s one of the biggest, most important questions of our times: ”How can I surf the Internet on a mobile device without going over my data cap?” It’s right before “Will Google Glass make me look like a jerk?” and “Will Netflix’s Arrested Development live up to the hype?”

On one side, we have the titans of mobile web and media, Google and Apple and Facebook and, well, every major media corporation, all of whom want you to access their products and content often. Heck, these guys want us to live in their products.

But we’re a society on the go, which means we’re accessing their products on the go, sometimes using their products to access other of their products. Great, everybody’s happy, right? Nope. Data caps. The big two of Verizon and AT&T have them—which means most of us have them—and those carriers that don’t will follow suit at some point.

Now with shared, tiered data plans, we find ourselves back in the Dark Age of the Phone, when we had these confusing plans that only let us talk to certain people at certain times of day, so we had to keep track of it with mathematic precision else we’d risk a massive and unpredictable bill.

Now, every time we want to, say, use Google Maps to get us to a new restaurant, we have to weigh it against how much of a hit it’ll be on our plan, as well as whether everybody in your family will be mad at you for using up their data, too.

Of course, we can get around this often enough with Wi-Fi. I’m on Wi-Fi at home, at work, and on the bus in between, meaning I’m rarely on the mobile network. But sometimes, all I have is the mobile network, not to mention those times that my phone doesn’t jump to the default Wi-Fi connection and I realize hours later that I’ve been using the network on my phone. That could be an expensive mistake. In addition, it’s the carriers that provide the Wi-Fi, as well, and while it comes in handy for them to use it for capacity management, the second it starts getting in the way of their data cash flow, something’s going to happen.

All in all, it’s not a tenable situation. You know it. I know it. Carriers know it. And they have what they think is the answer for it: Subsidized Plans.

Like a toll-free number from the days of yore, the carriers are expecting those big product and content providers to pay for your data access. After all, Google wants you on their maps, and it’s worth paying for you to get free data to do so.

ESPN is one of the first companies to come out as publicly testing the option, although from the tone of this Fierce Wireless article, they don’t seem too hopeful. The carriers quoted in it do, though.

There are certainly some problems with this solution. Net neutrality, for instance. The majority of the Internet is made up of niche sites, few of which are big enough to afford purchasing data for everybody. That means sites with the money get the advantage of access (as opposed to every other advantage). That’s a different Internet than the one we all know and love.

Also, I’m not sure how far the toll-free analogy works. The mobile Internet is a different world than landlines, with different expectations, demands, and rules. It could get pretty expensive for the company subsidizing the data, to the point that the cost outweighs the benefit rather quickly.

But the idea has enough merit to try out. One thing’s for sure, though. There is a large and growing consumer demand for mobile data. That means a large and growing opportunity. As long as shortsightedness and old business thinking don’t screw it up.

Now, I need to sit down with a calculator and an astrolabe and see what damage Arrested Development is about to do to my plan.

Photo credit: Wayan Vota, Flickr