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CAT6 cable is the sixth generation of Ethernet cables that use twisted pairs of wires to transmit data, and the primary difference between this generation and the ones preceding is that Cat6 allows for more bandwidth. Some differences in the construction of the cable make it better suited for higher speeds. Use bulk Cat6 cable in 1000ft portable boxes, available in white, blue and gray for home and commercial networking installations.
CAT6 Cable Deconstructed
Much like its Cat 5 predecessor and the generations prior, Cat6 cable is essentially four pairs of twisted wires housed inside a sheath. The only real difference in the construction of a Cat6 cable is the addition of a longitudinal separator. Essentially, a divider located inside of the sheath separates each twisted pair in order to reduce crosstalk and vastly improve the quality of the data signal. Because of this one key difference, Cat6 cable is able to deliver twice the bandwidth of even Cat 5e cable. However, because the design is very much the same, Cat6 is backwards compatible with Cat 5 and most Cat 3 applications.
When cross sectioning a length of Cat6 cable, which can come in a variety of bright colors, four pairs of wires become evident. These also have brightly colored wire sheaths for properly installing RJ45 or other connectors. A separator inside of the main wire, typically made of a very flexible type of plastic, holds the four pairs of twisted wires at a distance from one another. This keeps data transmissions through each wire separate and thereby decreases interference and data loss.
Why Is CAT6 Preferred?
Right now, most residential internet speeds top out at around 100 Mbps, which is the top-end rating for a Cat 5e cable. As such, it may not make sense to upgrade to Cat6 since there are very few applications in residential settings that require 200 MHz of bandwidth. However, some applications in certain markets are capable of running speeds of up to 1 gigabyte per second, and this pushes the boundaries of the commonly used Cat 5e. For this reason alone, upgrading to Cat6 – or even installing Cat6 in new applications and builds – makes more sense.
The good news is that, much like the jump from Cat 3 and 4 to Cat 5 cabling, Cat6 cable is backwards compatible with Cat 5 connections and applications. As such, applications that worked successfully with Cat 5 and 5e will work just as well, if not better, with Cat6 technology. When it comes to new installations in walls, conduit, and other locations that are difficult to access, it is best to future-proof as much as possible. With the projected increases in consumer internet speeds, Cat 5 cable may become obsolete in many applications in as little as five years. As such, analysts recommend Cat6 for all such installations.
Solid vs. Stranded Cable
Just like its predecessor, Cat6 cable is available in either a solid or a stranded form, and each one provides its own set of inherent benefits. Solid cable is best in structured wiring settings since it is capable of carrying a stronger signal over long distances and it inserts in wall jacks and patch panels easily. However, when the cable will be terminated in RJ45 connectors, which are still the industry standard, solid cable may prove difficult. The prongs in the connectors must penetrate the cable, and since solid cable is more likely to break, adding the connector is often time-consuming and difficult. A special type of RJ45 connector with three prongs is available; the three prongs wrap around the solid wire rather than penetrate it, providing a much better and safer connection.
For most indoor and patch applications, stranded Cat6 cable is the best choice. It is much more flexible than solid cable, which means it easily wraps around corners without fear of breaking. Because a standard RJ45 connector can penetrate the twisted pairs of wires easily, the termination connection is much better. Shorter cables that are available for consumer purchase in electronics and hardware stores are of the stranded variety, and these commonly connect computers and other devices to modems in households.
Types of Cable Sheathing
Like other types of cabling used in homes, offices, and commercial settings, Cat6 cable is available with several types of sheaths. Non-plenum cable is the most abundant, and it takes its name from the HVAC term describing the space between a drop or standard ceilings or floor spaces where air circulates known as the plenum. Traditionally, the sheath on Ethernet cables is made of PVC, which is a very durable type of plastic that does a great job of protecting the wires inside. However, when PVC burns or becomes very hot, it releases toxic chemicals into the environment. For this reason, many fire codes prohibit the use of standard Cat6 cables in plenum spaces since fire and smoke travel quickly through the plenum, spreading potentially toxic fumes throughout the building.
Plenum-rated Cat6 cables are available to solve this issue, and these have a sheath made from a fire- and smoke-retardant material such as Teflon. As such, the cable does not catch fire as readily, and even when it does, it smokes less and produces fewer toxic chemicals. These pass fire codes in most locations, and are even more effective when installed inside plenum-rated conduit.
How to Purchase Cat6 Cable
When purchasing Cat6 cable, there are several factors to keep in mind. First, it is important to discern whether solid or stranded cable is the best in a given application. Stranded cable is best in most household and office applications because it provides more flexibility over shorter distances. It is easier to install, makes better connection with RJ45 terminating connectors, and does not break as easily. For applications inside of walls and conduit, such as a new build, solid cable is the best choice since it carries a stronger signal over longer distances and is easier to connect to a wall jack.
Another factor to consider is the location of the cable. Indoor cable may be non-plenum or plenum rated depending on its use. However, for cable strung on poles above the ground or buried beneath the ground, it is necessary to take things a step further and purchase outdoor rated Cat6 cable. These have gel fillings or water blocking tape to protect them from the elements, and while they are more expensive, they prevent data loss that occurs when water or debris gets into the sheath of the cable.
Radio frequency interference, or RF interference, can cause significant crosstalk and data loss. Thus, if the Cat6 cable is in a location where devices that use RF waves are common, it is important to purchase shielded cable. This is more expensive than its counterpart is since a shield made from a light metal alloy, such as aluminum Mylar, lies between the twisted wires and the PVC jacket to prevent RF waves from interfering with the data transmission. This investment is necessary in order to maintain bandwidth.
Finally, it is important to consider the length that is necessary in an application when purchasing Cat6 cable. For short distances, such as connecting a computer to a modem, a standard stranded cable will do the job. However, when it comes to bringing a network from the street to a building, a shielded solid cable is the better choice since it carries data across greater distances.
The Future of Cat6 Cable
Many contractors and homeowners worry about the future when it comes to the installation of Cat6 cable because although Cat 5e is still the industry standard, Cat 7 is already available for certain applications. Although Cat 7 offers an even higher increase in bandwidth capabilities, the truth is that it is not feasible for many standard residential applications because internet service providers are simply unable to deliver the speeds.
Some contractors and installers recommend Cat 7 cable for aerial and buried applications for future proofing, and while this may prove beneficial in the next decade or two, there is one prime consideration. New Cat6 cable carries with it a lifespan of about 10 years, and experts do not expect residential bandwidth to exceed the capabilities of Cat6 within the next decade. For that reason, the much more expensive Cat 7 cable may be an investment with no real return. For now, Cat6 is the best choice for maximizing bandwidth and reducing crosstalk.