AUGUSTA, Maine — Over the past year, the speed of Internet access has increased in Maine, according to a national online report. But the United States ranks only 15th worldwide in Internet speed, experts note, and that hurts Maine businesses trying to compete in international markets.

“How pathetic is that that the United States of America is 15th in the world?” said Public Utilities Commission member Jack Cashman. “Obviously, the country has a long way to go.”

The former commissioner of economic development and a businessman before joining Gov. John Baldacci’s administration, Cashman said he is “acutely aware” of the need for Maine to develop its Internet infrastructure, one he hopes will eventually be the best in the Northeast. He said the future of Maine’s economy depends on having strong broadband access.

“There are companies in Maine that are competing around the world,” said Sen. Lynn Bromley, D-South Portland. She co-chairs the Legislature’s Business, Research and Economic Development Committee, as well as the state’s Economic Growth Council. “While it certainly is good that we have improved here in Maine, we are in competition with countries that are doing far better than we are.”

The report is based on data from nearly 230,000 Internet users throughout the country that took the online “Speed Matters” test conducted by an online advocacy group of the same name.

Comparison data with other countries are from the U.S.-based Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.

In the 2007 test, Maine ranked 35th in the nation, but improved to 21st in the 2008 test. The measure was of download speed with upload speed about the same as last year.

“I think we can all applaud the improvement,” said Rep. Chris Rector, R-Thomaston, a member of the BRED Committee and the council. “But we have a long way to go to provide the Internet infrastructure we need to compete in the worldwide economy, and make no mistake about it, we have to compete.”

The speed difference can be dramatic, according to the “Speed Matters” study. It points out that an entire movie can be downloaded in Japan in two minutes. In Maine it can take two or more hours to download the same movie.

Japan is rated fastest in the study with South Korea No. 2. Finland is in third place and France in fourth place. Canada ranks eighth in the world with a median download speed of 7.60 megabits per second. Maine had a speed of 2.56 megabits per second, according to the study.

Both Bromley and Rector said the need for the “big pipe” to move more data at higher speeds was recognized by lawmakers earlier this year when funding was provided for a large fiber-optic connection that will benefit both the University of Maine System and The Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor.

Research projects at both institutions require moving huge amounts of data to other universities and research centers around the world. But world-class Internet speeds coexist in Maine with what some see as the equivalent of a string tied between two tin cans.

“It’s hard to believe, but there are businesses getting by with dial-up,” Rector said. “It is really amazing.”

University of Maine Business professor Nory Jones teaches e-commerce. She confirmed that some Maine businesses are still using dial-up Internet connections, while others have state-of-the-art fiber-optic connections with “very high-speed access.”

Jones said broadband is crucial to Maine’s economic future.

“Everything in business today depends on using the Internet,” she said. “Everything is dependent on moving data.”

Jones said the entire supply chain of the retail economy depends on computers and the ability to transfer data from retailers to warehouses and manufacturers. She said even very small businesses use computers every day for basic functions such as bookkeeping and credit card purchases.

“I am still astonished when I come across a fairly decent-sized, mid-size business in Maine that is not taking advantage of the Internet,” Jones said. “It happens more than you would think.”

Baldacci said he was very pleased that Maine had “catapulted” ahead of other states. He predicted Maine would continue to improve its access with steps already taken by his administration and the Legislature.

“What we have to have is a national policy that recognizes the importance of the Internet to international commerce,” he said. “We are doing our part; the federal government needs to do its part.”

Baldacci said he expects the next session of the Legislature will deal with expanded state efforts to provide broadband access throughout the state.