Sweden came in first in the Digital Access Index, followed by Denmark and Iceland, while Norway was fifth, the International Telecommunications Union said. It claims this is the first global ranking of the subject.
"Their presence at the top reflects that region's traditional emphasis on equitable access, affinity for technology and top-notch infrastructure," said the ITU report.
South Korea, world leader in high-speed broadband access, came in fourth. South Koreans are heavy users of the Internet for games, chatting, and other purposes.
Filling out the top 10 in order were the Netherlands, Hong Kong, Finland, Taiwan, and Canada.
The study measured 178 countries on a range of criteria, including the number of telephone lines and mobile phones per inhabitant, the cost of going online, national literacy, the speed of connection available, and the percentage of inhabitants who are Internet users.
The United States was in 11th place, held back in part by its underdeveloped mobile phone system, said Michael Minges, author of the 27-page report.
The U.S. government also has done little to encourage competition among service providers, so American prices remain relatively high compared with Asia, where government-encouraged competition is strong, he added.
The study compared the top 40 countries in 2002 with the situation in 1998 to see how much change there had been.
"Over the past four years there's been a big shift," said Minges. "It's really moving toward Asia and away from the English-speaking nations."
South Korea has been rising fastest, up 20 places between 1998 and 2002. Taiwan rose 13 places during the same period, Hong Kong six, Singapore five, and Japan four.
"They're all Asian,'' said Minges. "In none of these countries is English the mother tongue. Yet they've done exceedingly well. And look at the countries that have dropped the most. They're all Anglophone countries."
Britain dropped three places during the period, Canada and the United States each went down five, Australia was down eight, and New Zealand nine.
"This is completely contrary to everything that we've heard, that English is an advantage, if you don't speak English you're behind," Minges said.
At the other end of the scale, most of the countries at the bottom of the list are among the least-developed African nations.
"In those countries it is going to be very difficult to do anything," said Minges. "There's hardly any infrastructure. Levels of literacy and school enrollment are very low. And affordability is just sky high."
The index was prepared for leaders meeting next month in Geneva to discuss the possibility of making Internet access available to everyone on the planet.