A new Boston Consulting Group perspective piece about the inescapable role of the Internet in economic life raises obvious questions about where value now lies, as “every business needs to “go digital.”

By 2016, there will be three billion Internet users globally, and the Internet economy will reach $4.2 trillion in the G-20 nations, BCG argues.

“No company or country can afford to ignore this phenomenon,” BCG says. But that doesn’t mean every part of the ecosystem benefits equally, one might argue.

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On one hand, a trillion devices will need to be connected to the Internet, which obviously implies the need for access services. Many of those devices will be sensors, which is why mobile service providers see such potential for machine-to-machine services.

But the business now is “about ecosystems,” BCG says. “The Internet is increasingly being shaped by ecosystems orchestrated by companies such as Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google, Baidu, Tencent and Yandex, BCG argues. .

And that is the concern service providers have, generally expressed as the fear of being reduced to a “dumb pipe” provider in a business where most of the value gets created elsewhere in the ecosystem. But it is hard to argue with the fundamental underlying logic.

Across the G-20 nations, the Internet economy amounted to 4.1 percent of GDP, or $2.3 trillion, in 2010 and is contributing up to eight percent of gross domestic product. So when service providers ask “Where is the value in the Internet ecosystem?” they often don’t like the answers.

The BCG shows one element of the concern, namely that even in the “access” business, value has shifted from fixed line to mobile.

BCG argues that all contestants need to understand and strengthen their “digital balance sheets” to succeed.

The Internet also conveys sizable economic benefits that do not get captured directly by calculations of GDP. In the G-20 nations in 2010, consumers researched online but purchased offline more than $1.3 trillion in goods, the equivalent of about 7.8 percent of consumer spending in those nations.

In addition, in many leading G-20 nations, the Internet generated a consumer surplus of about four percent of GDP. This consumer surplus is the value that consumers place on the Internet above what they pay for it in device, application, and access costs.

Further economic benefits include business-to-business e-commerce and collaboration within and across companies, for example.

The good news is that demand for access services now is ubiquitous. By 2016, the three billion Internet users will represent 45 percent of the world’s population. But, by 2016, mobile devices will account for about 80 percent of all broadband connections in the G-20 nations.

Of course, much of the growth is happening in emerging markets rather than developed markets. The Internet economy of China will approach the size of the U.S. Internet economy in 2016.

Social media have taken hold everywhere, especially in emerging markets. That, of course, drives value for application providers, though indirectly for access providers.

Indonesia has the second-largest number of Facebook users. More than 90 percent of Internet users in Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico participate in social media, a higher percentage than in any developed nation.

Across all nations, social media are responsible for most of the new time spent on the Internet, including 22 percent of total Internet minutes. At the same time, social communications are starting to displace email, another historic reason for use of Internet access services.

And change is not likely to stop. As recently as 2005, the broadband access business was almost exclusively a “fixed network business.” That won’t be the case in the future.

The bigger problem remains that much of the new created value happens at the application layer.

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