The Difference Between Cat5e, Cat6, and Cat6a
New technology, advances in automation, and overflowing opportunities are unlocked every day. For businesses, research teams, and tech projects around the world, there is a constant balance between getting the right amount of power versus spending an exact tech budget wisely.
Cabling and other infrastructure choices are in a precarious position, with many low IT budgets or simply cheap options tempting the cost-conscious planner. At the same time, the newest and faster technology is always a temptation, but can you be sure that your project will use the investment to the highest potential before it fails or becomes obsolete?
Here are a few Ethernet cable options to help you understand your available choices.
The standard Cat5 cable is obsolete and hard to find. This part of the cable standard began with a max speed of around 100 megabits per second (mbps) at a max effective distance of 100 meters. The bandwidth for this standard—the size and timing of the signal going through the cable, was at 100 megahertz (MHz).
Gigabit internet is becoming the norm in most countries that have rolled out broadband internet and maintain healthy, competitive internet markets. Because of this, it’s important to know that if most people mention Cat5 in conversation, they’re usually referring to Cat5e unless they specify.
Cat5e is the modern standard, with the ‘e’ meaning ‘enhanced’. These cables reach 1000 mbps or 1 gigabit per second (gbps). Some of the major improvements with the Cat5e standard involve better twisting and shielding of the internal wiring.
When dealing with Ethernet cables, understanding copper’s properties and network performance are crucial. Although many technicians are entering the industry with little to no knowledge of the dangers of crosstalk, the interference, and rampant disconnect issues are still a real danger if not managed properly.
With older cables, copper wires could radiate signals strong enough to interfere with other wires in the same cable. More commonly in the past two decades, outside interference and even wiretapping and other spying techniques, as well as intentional signal jamming techniques could either disrupt or steal information from poorly-shielding cables.
What does that look like in the real world? For most people outside of some kind of spy/espionage thriller, it just means that the internet disconnects or slows down whenever interference happens. The worst offenders were from microwave oven signals and 2.4Ghz wireless mice, but if you managed a tech facility that had a robust wireless network, the wireless radios and other signal technology could interfere.
Cat5e’s improvements outlined better ways to twist wires together to reduce crosstalk without relying on the excessive amount of shielding—the literal shield coating that covers wires.
The Cat6 standard introduced a drastic increase of speed that was not only on the horizon, but expected within a few years of commercial Gigabit internet availability.
At 10gbps, an effective length of 55m, and running at 250MHz bandwidth, the Cat6 standard answered several questions that came from the evolving changes within the Cat5e standard.
Rather than relying on more wires alone, the Cat6 standard’s 250MHz bandwidth is the major contributor of the faster speeds. This is not a specific frequency as in radio stations or antenna frequencies, but a range of frequencies allowing a lot of variation.
These variations allow for different signal types and sizes to deliver more robust data packages. Simply put, more data waves can be packed in and sent down the cable at a single time. Even if the signal moves at the same speed as an older Cat5 cable, the vehicle holding all of the data is bigger, so you can fit more information in to arrive at the destination at the same time.
There are a few other improvements that increase the performance of Cat6 cables. The issue of moving into the future isn’t just going faster—remarkable speeds are available in experimental, unstable environments—but arriving reliably and in a usable fashion.
Your Ethernet cable has multiple twisted wires inside that are channels performing similarly to lanes on a highway. More lanes mean more data, but engineers need to be careful not to increase potential crosstalk while making sure data is traveling at the expected speed.
The Cat6 method of managing these highways involves a tighter, but specific way of weaving the wires. It’s more than just hand tightening; at this precision level of engineering, the key is finding exact bends, shielding materials, and positions that allow the wires to transmit data at proper speeds, avoid crosstalk, and remain durable in many environments.
Some Cat6 cables use a hollow core in the center. The twisted pairs of cables are wrapped around the core to avoid crosstalk while maintaining integrity against twisting and bending, and having a hollow core instead of a solid and flexible core allows better bending.
Cat5e and Cat6 are currently interchangeable, but Cat6 is being phased in by most futureproof-conscious installers. It’s already affordable and with much faster speeds, so it’s neither a scientific or marketplace experiment to switch to 6.
One problem with the Cat6 original standard is the 55m max effective distance. For deployments in data warehouses and especially in multi-property installations that are not ready for fiber installations, buying additional cable and adding any form of range extension becomes an obvious cost to be avoided.
Enter the Cat6a standard, with the same speeds as Cat6, but at a 100m effective max distance. Cat6a also boasts a bigger bandwidth at 500MHz. With the future of communication, be it voice, data, or video, heading towards the need for light speed, using Cat6a cables allows an easy jump to higher speed cables as they become readily available, such as Cat8.1 and Cat8.2.
What Should You Buy?
Budgeting network infrastructure can be difficult when there are new choices on the market, but the Cat5e to Cat6a choices are fairly simple. In fact, it’s more a question of action versus inaction
For new installations, consider not using Cat5e or below unless you have technology that specifically cannot work with Cat6a. Such compatibility issues are hard to find, and you can test it out simply by connecting a short, affordable cable from a newer standard to see if it works.
If your network infrastructure will not exceed 1gbps, there is not a significant reason to upgrade. This is often an issue for rural and recovering suburban areas where Internet Service Providers (ISPs) aren’t ready to deploy 1gbps internet.
If your business or project moves internal or intranet data and needs speeds exceeding 1gbps, how big is your property? If you can reach every computer, router, switch, and other nodes within 55 meters, Cat6 is fine.
If there is ever a time where you need to use an extender, splicer, or another way to combine cables, move on to Cat6a. Most networks will only expand or will need to move in different directions, and the cost difference between Cat6 and Cat6a is slimming on a regular basis.
Finally, hunt for surplus. If you see a deal on cables and you’ve run into cable emergencies, get anything you can for backup. Whether its neighbors digging into the wrong place or workers rolling their chairs over the cables a few too many times, you’ll want either pre-made cables or spools of cable to crimp as needed.
Still need help deciding what you need for your data center or what options are available? Our Ethernet cables Experts are here to help. Give them a call or click the chat button to discuss your needs and options with them today.
Additional Ethernet Resources
- The Right Ethernet Cables for High Density Networks
- Why Would You Use Shielded Ethernet Cables?
- What are Ferrari-style Ethernet Cables?
- What is Cat8 and how is it different from other Ethernet cables?
- Ethernet for Challenging Installs
- Shop all CablesAndKits Ethernet Cables
- Visit the CK Learning Center