What are the differences between Category 5 (Cat5), Category 5 Enhanced (Cat5e), Category 6 (Cat6), and now Category 6A (Cat6A) cable and which one is the right choice for your business? There are several questions you need to address before choosing which direction to go. First, let us provide you with a few straightforward definitions and statistics on these four common grades of network cable, to help you better choose the right one to fit your business needs.
All four types of cable are available in two varieties: Unshielded Twisted Pair (UTP), the type widely used in the United States, and Screened Twisted Pair (SCTP), which has shielding to provide a measure of extra protection against interference, but is rarely used outside of Europe. All types are made up of four twisted pairs of copper wire within their cable jackets. The copper wires of these varieties are either solid or stranded. Solid cable is more rigid, and is the better choice if data needs to be transmitted over a long distance, while Stranded is very flexible and most likely to be used at patch cables.
Cat5: Cat5 cable can support 10 or 100 Mbps Ethernet, and has a capability of up to 100MHz. This is the most basic data cable and common in older existing cabling systems. Spectrum Telesys no longer installs Cat5 cable.
Cat5E: Cat5e fulfills higher standards of data transmission than Cat5 and can handle data transfer at 1000 Mbps which is suitable for Gigabit Ethernet. It also experiences much lower levels of near-end-crosstalk (NEXT) than Cat5, and is suitable for most of today’s cable applications.
Cat6: Cat6 cable is also made up of four twisted pairs of copper wire, but its capabilities far exceed those of the other cable types because of one particular structural difference: a longitudinal separator. This separator isolates each of the four pairs of twisted wire from the others, which reduces crosstalk, allows for faster data transfer, and gives Category 6 cable twice the bandwidth of Cat5. Cat6 cable is ideal for supporting 1 Gigabit Ethernet, and is able to operate at up to 250MHz. It does however have a reduced maximum length of up to 55 meters (180 feet) when used for 10GBASE-T applications. Since technology and standards are constantly evolving, Cat6 is the wisest choice of cable when taking any possible future updates to your network into consideration. Not only is Cat6 cable future-safe, it is also backward-compatible with any previously-existing Cat5 and Cat5e cabling found in older installations.
Cat6A: Cat6A doubles the capability of Cat6 by performing at up to 500 MHz, which allows 10GBASE-T to be run over longer distances of up to 100 meters (320 feet). Both Cat6 and Cat6A are backward-compatible with Cat3, Cat5, and Cat5e. In the realm of crosstalk, the most significant improvement of Cat6A over Cat6 relates specifically to alien crosstalk (AXT), which tends to be significant in Category 6 cables exposed to high frequencies, but quite low in Cat6A. Things to consider about Cat6A cable: It’s about 50% larger than the average Cat6 cable, it’s heavier and requires a bigger bend radius, and it doesn’t like zip ties (Velcro wraps should be used).
All comparisons considered, it should be mentioned that if you’re creating a new network or upgrading an existing one, it’s recommended that you speak to one of our specialists to help you make the right choice. Left with the decision between Cat5e and Cat6, a few additional things to consider are whether you’re leasing or buying an office or building, your budget, and how likely you are to take on a system-wide upgrade in the future. If you’re simply looking to expand an existing Cat5e network in a small business, and are unlikely to take apart that infrastructure and replace it with a higher category of cable in the future, sticking with Cat5e can be a simple and affordable choice. However, if you’re building an enterprise network from the ground up, or are planning to upgrade existing Cat5e cable to Cat6 in the foreseeable future, it’s often wise to simply make the investment in Cat6, as it’s backward-compatible with earlier standards, yet far better equipped to deliver the speeds and performance you’ll require both now and in the future.