Cabling category. Do I need Cat 5E, Cat 6 or Cat 6A?

Which Cat do I need to make my network purfect?

If you’re getting yourself into a knot trying to determine which category of cabling is right for your new network, you’re not alone. Confusion in the marketplace is common, mainly as the differences between each cat option aren’t immediately apparent.

It doesn’t help that industry vendors speak tech talk and often muddy the waters when discussing the different categories. It’s common for vendors and installers to exaggerate the benefits of certain solutions for their own gain and new ISO/IEC standards branding Cat 5e ‘obsolete’ have further confused matters.

To help you cut through the confusion, we’ve answered some of the most common questions that crop up when our customers are faced with this crucial decision.

Cat Facts:

Cat5 Cable

Cat5 cable is broken into two separate categories: Cat5 and Cat5E cables. Cat5 has become obsolete in recent years, due to its limitations compared to Cat5E and Cat6 cables. Although the Cat5 cable can handle up to 10/100 Mbps at a 100MHz bandwidth (which was once considered quite efficient), the newer versions of Cat cables are significantly faster.

Cat5E cable (which stands for “Cat5 Enhanced”) became the standard cable about 15 years ago and offers significantly improved performance over the old Cat5 cable, including up to 10 times faster speeds and a significantly greater ability to traverse distances without being impacted by crosstalk.

Cat6 Cable

Cat6 cables have been around for only a few years less than Cat5E cables. However, they have primarily been used as the backbone to networks, instead of being run to workstations themselves. The reason for this (beyond cost) is the fact that, while Cat6 cables can handle up to 10 Gigabits of data, that bandwidth is limited to 164 feet — anything beyond that will rapidly decay to only 1 Gigabit (the same as Cat5E).

Cat6A is the newest iteration and utilizes an exceptionally thick plastic casing that helps further reduce crosstalk. The biggest distinguishing difference between Cat6 and Cat6A cables is that Cat6A can maintain 10 Gigabit speeds for the full 328 feet of Ethernet cable.

Ultimately, those who want to have the most “future proofed” cable will want to go with Cat6A. However, for most resident and commercial purposes, Cat5E and Cat6 cables should be more than sufficient.

What’s the difference between each category?

Structured cabling is typically judged in terms of its transmission performance – how effectively, rapidly and how far the cable transmits data. As you ascend the categories this performance improves, delivering numerous benefits. For example, signal loss is minimised, crosstalk is reduced and frequency bandwidth increases.

In practical terms, this means your network will be able to handle more data, you’ll experience fewer signal problems and disruption to VoIP calls and multimedia streaming will be minimised.

It’s important to note that Cat 6 or 6A cabling may not improve the speed of your structured cabling network by itself. Various other network components, in particular the network switch, will have a more significant bearing on its overall performance so you’ll need to ensure these elements can be integrated with your cabling of choice.

Aside from performance, price is the other key differentiator. Broadly speaking, Cat 6 costs 30 per cent more than Cat 5e while Cat 6A costs 30 per cent more than Cat 6. Due to this disparity in cost, price is typically the deciding factor for many organisations when the time comes to make a decision.

Is Cat 5e dead?

Although Cat 5e is technically judged ‘obsolete’ for new installations it is not in fact redundant and in certain scenarios it can be applied to great effect.

For example, if you’re a small team moving into a temporary office it’s unlikely that you’ll require a future-proof, high-bandwidth network so Cat 5e may be the most sensible, cost-effective solution.

Cat 5e also has a role to play in larger networks. As it can handle lower bandwidth applications it can be applied to connect workstation devices to a network with more robust backbone cabling. This allows you to mix and match different categories across your network to create a cost-effective solution without compromising on performance. However, it’s worth noting that although this solution will deliver in the short term, it’s not a future-proof design.


So which category should I implement?

Without an understanding of your organisation’s unique requirements, we can’t in good conscience recommend a specific category of cabling. However, it’s worth considering the following points when you’re making a decision.

A key factor to consider is the amount of data and bandwidth your organisation consumes and shares now and what you expect in the future. If your staff regularly share large multimedia files across the Internet this will put a drain on bandwidth so a Cat 6A-based network may be the best option for you. The same applies if your team regularly uses tablets and smartphones around the office.

Most importantly, don’t forget to factor in your future requirements. Structured cabling can have a long lifespan and the solution you install now should last at least five years. If you’re planning on adding staff in the near future your network will need to be prepared for more devices and data so it’s worth considering this before making a final decision.

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