Cat 5e, Cat 6 & Cat 6A Cable: which is best for your network?
One of the most common questions asked when it comes to industrial and commercial network design and data cable installation is, which category of cable is best suited to my needs? In the following we describe the differences between Cat 5e, 6 and 6a cable, and why you might choose one over the other.
All three categories of cable look the same from the outside and they all have the same RJ-45 end, which can plug into the Ethernet jacks on your computers, routers and switches. This, however, is where the similarity ends, as each has distinct differences that can impact on which one you decide to install.
Firstly, there is a noticeable difference in price, with each category costing more per metre than the previous category. However, just because later categories are more advanced in terms of performance, doesn’t necessarily mean you have to install the more expensive cable; this very much depends on the current and future demands placed on your network.
About 15 years ago, when it was first released, Cat 5e cable (the ‘e’ stands for ‘enhanced’) was the first glimpse of the potential of a 1 Gigabit network, although at that time, the hardware required to support it was prohibitively expensive for the average user. Over time, as the cost of the hardware decreases, 5e has become the minimum standard in data cable, eventually rendering Cat 5 obsolete.
Made up of 24 gauge twisted pair wires, the 5e delivers 1 Gigabit network speed at distances up to 328 feet. While Cat 5 was potentially capable of 1 Gigabit speeds (dependent on the network connections), 5e incorporated improvements in isolation between the wires, reducing the level of ‘crosstalk’ — the interference between the wires — and increased the frequency of the cable up to 100MHz.
Although Cat 6 cables have been around for just for a few years less than Cat 5, historically the 10 Gigabit cable has been used for the backbone of networks, with 5e being run to individual workstations. This is not only due to cost but also because the bandwidth of the Cat 6 can only run to 164 feet. Beyond this distance, the bandwidth can rapidly decrease to 1 Gigabit, the same as the 5e.
Physically, the Cat 6 is made up of either 23 or 24 gauge twisted pair wires, with 2 plus twists per centimetre (as compared to 1.5–2 in the 5e). The frequency in the Cat 6 has increased to 200MHz, which can also potentially increase crosstalk. For this reason, the Cat 6 cable has an internal nylon spline and is contained within a thick exterior sheath. In some cases, this can eliminate crosstalk completely.
The Cat 6a (‘a’ stands for ‘augmented’) is the most advanced version of data cable, anticipating a future where the 10G network is the standard. It not only has a bandwidth distance of the full 328 feet of Ethernet cable, but its frequency has doubled to 500MHz, which further improves its range. That said, Cat 6a is also the most expensive of the cable options.
Which cable should you choose?
Generally, the consensus seems to be that Cat 5e 1GB cable is currently adequate for a network where most servers are based in the Cloud, but may not support network demands in the future. Again, this is very much dependent on your business or industry’s needs in terms of network design and use.
Cats 6 and 6a clearly future-proof your network in terms of faster data speeds, greater range and reduced crosstalk, but gaining these benefits relies on your router being gigabit-compatible and your computers being gigabit-capable. It’s also important to point out that data speed is not the same as Internet speed. Upgrading your data cable to 6a is not going to have an impact on the speed of your internet; rather it will improve data transfer, upload and download times. Therefore, the choice of cable really boils down to what you’re using your network for, and how you think you’re going to use it in the future.
Before making any decisions about data cable installation or upgrade, talk to an expert Caslec electrician and we’ll help you find the right solution for your business or industry’s network needs. Call us on 1300 659 273 today.