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Bulk cat5 or cat5e cables are still in use in many home networks and small office LANs (local area network) though some have started to shift to the more advanced cat6 Ethernet cables. Before home and business owners shift to cat6 standards, it is worth knowing the full capabilities of each and differences between them before pulling out the network cables for upgrading.
Keeping abreast with the latest technology advances is good, but may not always be practical. In the case of LANs, or home networks, Gigabit Ethernet (or GbE) which is the current norm for big businesses certainly looks appealing, but before spending your money to move on to this standard, it is best to look at the current requirements of your network before making the shift.
When you look at Ethernet cables, for example bulk cat5 and bulk cat5e cables, they look similar on the outside. When you cut the cables open, they still look the same, meaning both have four pairs of twisted wires inside the sheath. However, the number of twists for every length varies for cat5 and ct5e, and it this feature that makes the difference in range and speed based on frequency. Cables that provide higher frequency will give more bandwidth or the ability to transfer data over the same line.
Below are the comparative differences in the design characteristics of Ethernet cables.
Cat3 – 10 Mbps
Cat5 – 100 Mbps
Cat5e – 1000 Mbps (1GbE)
Cat6 – 10 Gbps (10GbE)
Cat6e – 10 GBps (10GbE)
Cat3 – 16 MHz
Cat5 – 100 MHz
Cat5e – 350 MHz
Cat6 – 250 MHz
Cat6e – 750 MHz
Category 3 or cat3 is an unshielded twisted pair (UTP) cable that was used in the early ‘90s for wiring home and office LANs. Cat3 can still be seen in two-line phone configurations, but it has been replaced with the more superior cat5 or cat5e cables in most home networks.
All Ethernet cables that succeeded cat3 has four pairs of twisted wires, each pair twisted around each other to cancel out any interference that may come from another wire pair. The twisted wire pairs in Ethernet cables are based on four colors (blue, orange, green and brown). Each pair is made up of a solid-colored wire twisted together with another wire of the same color, but striped with white. Thus, when you open the cable sheath for cat5, 5e, 6, and 6e, you will see the same color of wires twisted together in pairs.
The gauge and type of wires used in cat5 and cat5e bulk cables are the same, and the main difference between the two lies in the number of twists per foot of wire used. Cat6 and cat6e cables use thicker gauge #23 or 22 wires compared to the #24 gauge used for cat5/5e. In addition to the use of thicker wires, cat6 cables contain a plastic separator or a spline between the four twisted wire pairs to reduce crosstalk or interference with the transmission signals. Thus, cat6 and 6e cables are thicker, less flexible, and are slightly harder to handle compared with cat5 and 5e.
Both ends of the Ethernet cable terminates with RJ45 connector, an 8-position, 8-contact (8P8C) modular plug and jack, with a slight difference for those used for cat6 and cat6e cables that have slightly larger holes because of the thicker #22-gauge wire used. Despite the slight difference, the cables fit into RJ45-type interface ports and sockets that are found in desktop PCs, switches, and firewalls. The pin assignments for cat5, 5e, 6, and 6e are likewise the same for standard, crossover, and patch cables.
RJ54 data jacks and plugs can use either the T568A or the T568B wiring standard. You can have a combination of these two standards in your network cables, but each cable should terminate with the same wiring standard, which means that when you use T568A on one end, the same standard should be used to terminate the other end of the cable.
The new Ethernet standards are backward compatible, meaning you can use cat6 cable for a device certified for Fast Ethernet speed. At first glance, many users wish for the 10GbE speed capability of cat6 wired networks, and may decide to shift to this cabling standard without looking at the other devices in the network. Since cat6 cables are backward compatible with older standards, the network will run even when the other devices such as routers, hubs, and switches connected to it are supporting the lower standards of 10 Mbps and 100 Mbps. Thus, you will not reap the higher speeds expected from the cat6 cables because the network speed will follow that of the lower standards.
Ethernet cable speeds
Ethernet cable speeds are measured in bits per second, so the 10 Mbps speed capability of the category 3 Ethernet cable means the transfer speed is 10 megabits per second. This should not be confused with the size of files we see in our computer, which is measured in bytes, for example 10 MB or 10 Megabytes. When the Ethernet cable speed is 10 Mbps, it does not translate to a file transfer speed of 10 MB per second because these are two different measurements. Bytes are capitalized when used in acronyms to distinguish them from bits, since both start with the letter B.
For comparison purposes, a 10 Mbps cable is capable of transmitting a 1.2 MB file per second. If you are dealing with a 1 GB (Gigabyte) file, it means your cable will complete the transfer of the file in about 15 minutes.
Home and small office networks rarely handle transmission of GB-sized files, unless you are transferring films and videos. Thus, the 100 Mbps transfer speed of cat5 or the 1000 Mbps capability of cat5e will be more than enough to serve the requirements of your home network without compromising the speed of data transmission.
Based on the above Ethernet speed and file size comparisons, take a closer look at the files that your home or office network handles to see whether the upgrade to cat6 cable is necessary.
Before deciding on an upgrade to cat6 cable for your network, you should look at the devices connected to it and to the volume of traffic that the network handles. Home and small office networks that run on an infrastructure using bulk cat5 cables is sufficient to support 100 Mb networks, while cat5e bulk cables support 100 Mb and 1 GB networks.