Wi-fi remains the first device that pops up in your mind whenever you think of home networking. But, do you know that there’s an alternative to it that is not only faster, reliable but also easier? Yes, you guess it right, ethernet network cables. Even the latest Wi-Fi routers come with ports for inserting ethernet cables; the latest versions of these cables can transfer data as fast as 1 Gbps (Gigabits per second) within 330 feet distance. Before going into details, let’s have a quick look at the evolution of ethernet cables. 

Ethernet Network Cables – The Evolution & Specifications

If there’s one thing that’s consistent with technology, it’s none other than evolution. Back then in the 80s, Category 1 cable was used for networking. This cable was also a voice-grade cable or Level 1 cable. In the onset, it was used for telephonic communications but gradually made its way into networking. It carried a 10KHz signal whereas the data transfer speed for the same was 1Mbps. 

This cable was replaced by Category 2 cable. It carried a 1MHz signal and transferred data at a speed of 4Mbps. Entering the 90s era, Category 3 cable entered the networking market. Often referred to as 1st modern networking cable, it carried an impressive 16MHz signal and boosted internet speed to 10Mbps. It gave way to Category 4 cable. The signal frequency increased to 20MHz and the data transfer speed reached a commendable 16Mbps. 

The year 1995 is often remembered for the arrival of Microsoft’s Windows 95. Often overlooked, it was the same year when a revolution occurred in the networking arena. Category 5 cable arrived back then in 1995. This variant of ethernet cable can transfer data at an impressive speed of 100Mbps and a signal frequency of 100MHz over a distance of 330 feet.

Category 5 cable was replaced by Cat5e ethernet cable. It increased data transfer speed by 10x to 1 Gigabits per second (Gbps). So, we can safely say that the decade of 90 remains a key era in networking. 

Category 6 cable (Cat6 Ethernet Cable) made its way to the market in the 21st century. It can transfer data at a speed of 10 Gbps over a distance of 165 feet with a signal frequency of 250 MHz. When distance is increased to 330 feet, data transfer speed shrinks to 1 Gbps. 

Category 6A (Cat6A Ethernet Cable) came in with an increased signal frequency of 550 MHz; the data transfer speed remains the same over a distance of 330 feet. Both Category 6 and Category 6A cables use shielding that lessens the crosstalk and reduces the interference. 

Though Category 7 cable debuted in 2010, it remains unrecognized by TIA (Telecommunication Industry Association). Category 7 cable is double-shielded. It has a shield around each pair of wires and an overall shield around the whole bundle. With 600MHz signal frequency, it can transfer data at a whopping speed of 10Gbps over a distance of 330 feet. 

Deciphering the acronyms

Now that you have a quick view of the evolution and the specs, let’s decipher the acronyms. The “TP” in the cable description stands for Twisted Pair and refers to wires inside the cable that are wound together. Next to TP are “S” and “U”. These acronyms explain if the cable is shielded or unshielded. The “S” says cable is shielded while “U” tells its reader that cable is unshielded. 

F” stands for foiled. It means either there is foiled wrapping around the whole cable or there is foiled cable around the individual wires. So, a cable bearing the “UTP” acronym means it is an unshielded twisted pair. A cable bearing the “FTP” mark states that the cable is a foiled twisted pair. Likewise, “SFTP” stands for shield and foiled twisted pair. 

Plenum, Riser and PVC cables

Plenum ethernet cables are specifically designed for installation in plenum spaces. These cables can be used in riser spaces too. These cables come in with additional security features making them fire retardant. Riser cables are designed for installation in riser spaces. Though these cables also come with extra security features, they can’t be used as a replacement for plenum cables. PVC cables are meant for installation in outdoor spaces. 

Cat5e vs Cat6: Picking the right one amongst 2 most popular cables

The 2 most popular and commonly used ethernet networking cables are Cat5e ethernet cable and Cat6 ethernet cable. Cat5 cable is a predecessor of Cat5 cable; with the former significantly improving the maximum bandwidth levels. It also reduced crosstalk. Cat5e’s cable length is 100 meters and its wire gauge is 24-26. 

Cat6 cable further reduced crosstalk while increasing data transfer speed over longer lengths. It can transfer data at a whopping speed of 10 Gbps at a distance of 55 meters. However, the same drops to 1Gbps when distance increases to 330 feet. The factor that makes Cat6 far superior to Cat5e is that often a spline is used inside the cable to isolate individual wires. This provides increased protection from exterior noise. 

The next variant to Cat6 is Cat6a ethernet cable. It offers 10Gbps data speed over a distance of 100 meters. It comes with an enhanced anti-noise protection and shielding. This cable is often used by education and healthcare sectors where data accuracy remains a top priority. If you have to pick between Cat5e and Cat6 cables, the latter is a far better choice. Doing so will also future proof your network for possible upgrades.