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Which One Goes Where? Understanding Different Types of Network Cables

Did you know that network downtime costs the average business more than $5,000 per minute? It’s little wonder that organizations spend so much money on IT teams to keep their networks running the right way.

One often overlooked aspect of network performance, though, is network cables. These are literally the wires that transfer data through your business Ethernet and keep your operations running. Few people realize that the type of cable they’re using can make a big difference in the performance of their network.

In fact, many people don’t even realize there are different types of network cables out there.

What different types of network cables are there, and what are they used for? Understanding them can go a long way to helping you improve cable management. By picking the right ones, you can optimize audio, video, and more for your network.

This guide will walk you through the different types, their uses, and how to identify them. You’ll also get tips on best practices and cable management.


Category 5 Cabling: Tried and True

Category 5 cabling infrastructure is the first standard, introduced in 1995. This was when computer networks were still in their infancy. Given that, the specifications of Category 5 cables were more than equipped to handle the demands of the day.

Today, though, Category 5 cabling isn’t enough for a lot of business applications. Its highest speed is 100 megabits per second. It supports the 100BASE-T Ethernet standard.

This was light years ahead of previous standards, such as Category 4. In fact, Cat5’s max speed is about 5 times faster than Category 4.

By today’s standards, though, Cat5 will deliver snail-paced Ethernet for your business. It’s the reason most experts recommend upgrading from Cat5 to a newer cabling option. Still, if you have Cat5 cabling and it’s serving your needs, then you may not want to fix what isn’t broken.

Category 5e: A New Standard

In 2001, Category 5e debuted. Like Category 5, it operates on the 100 MHz bandwidth. Unlike its predecessor, it supports much higher speeds. At 1000 megabits per second, it’s 10 times faster than Cat5 cabling.

It also replaced Cat5 as the basic cabling for local area networks, or LANs. Before 2001, many LANs used Cat5 cabling. All modern LANs use Cat5e.

Cat5e also uses a different Ethernet standard than Cat5. That supports higher speeds.

Much like Cat5, though, Category 5e cabling is fairly outdated at this point. While you may be able to get away with it, newer cabling types provide much faster speeds. They’ve also introduced new, forward-thinking strategies that make them a solid investment.

If you’re still using Category 5e cabling, you might want to consider upgrading.

Category 6: More Power for the 21st-Century Office

Hot on the heels of Category 5e was Category 6 network cabling. It made its debut in 2002, as new technology continued to call for faster transfer speeds.

Category 6 operates on the 250MHz bandwidth, which helps power the faster speeds of Gigabit Ethernet. It also uses more pair twists per inch, which reduces noise and interference. It also uses a plastic sheath, which reduces “cross-talk” between twisted pairs of wires.

The reduction in noise lets Category 6 cabling achieve much higher speeds. Its highest speed is up to 1000 megabits per second.

Category 6a: Switching Bandwidths

Category 6a cabling is another step up from Category 6. It uses much of the same technology to keep cross-talk and interference at low levels.

The major difference is Category 6a operates at a bandwidths of 500MHz. That higher frequency lets it achieve much higher speeds than anything before it.

How fast is Category 6a cabling? It’s the first true gigabit network cable. It’s capable of a maximum speed of up to 10 gigabits per second. That meets the demands of most computer networks today.

It’s also in line with the IEEE standards for high-speed, high-performance Ethernet.

Currently, Category 6 and Category 6a are “standard” for most buildings. If you own your office building and you plan to stay for a while, then upgrading from Cat6 or under is a good idea. Cat6a will likely remain the standard for some time.

That said, there are faster types of network cables out there. What’s more is that some people believe that the potential for copper wiring is nearing its limits. That means there won’t be significant improvements to copper wires.

That said, copper wiring won’t be outmoded for some time, so it may be wise to invest in Category 6a wiring now. If you’re already using it, then you may not need to upgrade for some time to come.

Categories 7 and 8: Handling the New Realities of Modern Ethernet

If you want better Ethernet, you’ll want to take a look at the newest types of twisted pair network cables.

Category 7 made its debut in 2010. Category 8 followed in 2013. Despite these technologies being between seven and ten years old, neither has been widely adopted.

That’s because Category 6a cables are still more than enough for most business uses. If you upgraded after 2002, then you likely adopted Category 6 or 6a cables. You may not feel like investing in rewiring your network yet again.

If you’re looking at upgrading from Category 5 or 5e, then you might want to hop straight ahead to Category 7 or 8 cables. These will ensure you have the most up-to-date cables for quite some time to come.

If you have Category 6 or 6a cables but find you need even higher speeds, then you might consider upgrading.

Category 7 cables again move to a higher frequency, this time 600MHz. You can see the diminishing improvements here. Category 6 more than doubled its bandwidth from Category 5, and Category 6a doubled again.

By contrast, Category 7 cables represent a 20 percent increase to bandwidth. Category 7’s max speed is the same as its predecessors.

It does make some improvements to further reduce noise and interference. Each twisted pair now includes its own shield, insulating it from other pairs.

Fiber Optic Cables

So, what’s the next frontier for speed? The answer seems to be the fiber optic cable.

Fiber optic cables contain thin strands of glass, which carry data over long distances. This core is wrapped in cladding, a buffer, and a jacket.

Fiber optic cables use light to send data. They’re completely immune to EMI and RFI, unlike their copper cousins. Since data travels at the speed of light, this type of cable represents new horizons in performance.

Just how fast are fiber optics? These cables can carry data at a speed of 100 gigabits per second. That’s 10 times faster than Category 7’s top speed.

What’s more is fiber optics can maintain these speeds over huge distances. Whereas copper wire speeds are measured per 100 meters of wire, fiber optics are measured in kilometers.

Subtypes of Fiber Optic Cables

There are two major types of fiber optic cable right now. The first is single-mode fiber. The second is multi-mode fiber.

SMF cables only have a single beam of light. The MMF cable uses multiple beams of light.

Both have their strengths and weaknesses. MMF can carry much more data than SMF. SMF is more reliable.

MMF cables tend to be a better choice for short distances. If you plan to outfit a single building or room, then MMF might be the right choice. If you need to run cables across a longer distance or send less data, then SMF might be a better fit.

Choosing Between Types of Network Cables

Now that you know all about the different network cabling types, you have a different question. Which type of cable do you need for your business?

You may already have a couple of guesses about what you need. Most businesses today should be using Category 6 or 6a cabling, at the least.

Category 6a network cables are usually enough for most Ethernets today. You’ll probably notice that it provides enough speed for almost everything.

If you’re dealing with very large video files or presentations, then you might want to upgrade. Categories 7, 7a, and 8 provide better performance, although they have the same max speed.

If you want fast, stable networks, though, then fiber optic cabling might be your best bet. Fiber optic has become a gold standard for businesses, and it’s unlikely you’ll need to upgrade again any time soon.

When Should You Upgrade Network Cables?

Unless you’re using Category 5, there’s no real timeframe for upgrading network cables. That said, there are plenty of signs it might be time to make a switch. Here are a few considerations.

You Plan to Sell or Move to a New Facility

If you’re using anything older than Category 6, then you might want to look at upgrading. That’s especially true if you’re thinking about selling your building or moving to a new facility.

A new facility can be outfitted with more updated cables before you move in. If it’s a new construction, then you’ll want to be forward-thinking with the cabling you select.

If you own your building and you’re planning to sell, then it could be time to upgrade. An upgraded cabling infrastructure could raise the price.

If you plan to rent the building out, then the same applies. You could charge higher rent for an office space that comes equipped with fiber optic cables versus one using a cabling standard from 1995.

You’re Approaching Your Bandwidth Limit

If you’ve noticed your network constantly seems clogged or slows down, then you might have hit your bandwidth limit. Your options here are to pare back network use or improve the network.

Switching the cables can expand bandwidth. That, in turn, can keep your network running faster, even as you do more. If you plan to expand your team or add new functions any time soon, then upgrading might be a must.

This is more likely with older types of cables. If you’re still using Category 5 or Category 5e cables, you might have noticed that the network just isn’t performing the way it used to. That may be because your team members are dealing with more presentations, webinars, or other applications.

This is true even of Category 6 and 6a cabling. You might notice that as your business grows, the network slows down. More users take up bandwidth, causing slower speeds.

In that case, it might be time to upgrade to a higher category of cable or even fiber optic technology.

Your Applications Have Changed

If you’re just a few people sending emails over the network, then you might be able to get away with Category 5 cabling. If you’ve recently changed your focus, though, then you’ll likely need to upgrade to support new network functions.

Many businesses have had to switch to telecommuting and remote work in the past few months. You may now be holding meetings virtually. Your network needs to be able to keep up with these demands.

Forward-thinking business leaders and building owners will want to invest in fiber optic cabling. This type of network cable can be run between floors. If you want to make sure the conference room is set up for optimized video and audio, then fiber optic could be the right choice.

Fiber optic cables are usually installed as part of the network, not the entirety of it. They can also go anywhere, making them one of the more flexible options you have.

Keep Pace With Your Business

Having the right networking cables will help you keep up with the pace of business. Knowing about the different types of network cables will help you make the right decision about how to wire your business for success.

Looking for more information on the technology that keeps your business running? You’re in the right spot! Check in with us often for more insightful articles and all the latest tips.

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