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What is Cat5, Cat6 & Cat7 and which should I use?

Should I choose the fibre optic solution?


What is Cat5, Cat6 & Cat7 and which should I use?

As technology improves, the communications infrastructure required to support it must also improve. Cat5, 6 & 7 refers to an Ethernet cable standard defined by the Electronic Industries Association and Telecommunications Industry Association (Commonly known as EIA/TIA). Cat5 is the 5th generation of twisted pair Ethernet cabling and the most popular of all twisted pair cables in use today.

Cat5 contains 4 pairs of copper wire and supports fast (100 Mbps) Ethernet up to a maximum recommended run rate of 100m. Most current networking solutions are based on the Cat5 and Cat5e (Cat5 enhanced) communication medium. Cat5e supports short-run Gigabit Ethernet (1000 Mbps) networking by utilising all four wire pairs and is backward compatible with ordinary Cat5.

Newer technologies have resulted in newer generation cabling standards such as Cat6 and the latest, Cat7. Cat 6 can transmit data at much faster rates (200-250 MHz) than the old Cat5 and Cat5e (100 MHz) and newer improvements have seen this bandwidth pushed even further in Cat7 (600 MHz).

Cat7 has advantages in bandwidth, is suitable for strong RF & EMI environments, has better NEXT (Near End Cross Talk) isolation, a lower cost than fibre LAN and secure transmission.  The cable requires individual pair and overall shielding which increases the weight and size of the cable. This means stronger and larger pathways are required and the cable has a more stringent bend radius (100 mm).

Cat5e is generally still considered the most practical solution due to its lower cost and easy installation requirements but many network administrators are pushing for the shift to higher capacity communications lines.

Should I choose the fibre optic solution?

Choosing between the copper and fibre-optic solutions is sometimes difficult, as distance, cost, required bandwidth and specialised expertise need to be considered. With the arrival of Cat5e cabling the prospect of Gigabit Ethernet became much more practical. The solution would require bi-directional signals on each pair, with multilevel coding to compress the data. Things like FEXT (Far End Cross Talk) and return loss (reflections at the interfaces) became critical issues. The only way it could work was by installing high speed digital signal processors in the transceivers, which is costly.

The practical alternative to using expensive electronics is to use a much less expensive high bandwidth cable. The result was the Cat6 cable. But every time the electronics begin to creep closer to the cable bandwidth, new cables would have to be laid. As such there is a point at which fibre is a cheaper solution then copper.

The main advantages of Optical-Fibres are:

  • Long distance transmission
  • Immune to RFI & EMI
  • Intrinsic security of transmission
  • Reduced system costs
  • Reduced maintenance costs
  • Dielectric nature
  • Upgrading ease
  • Light weight
  • Lowest life cycle costs
  • High capacity
  • Smaller size
  • Synergistic planning lowers overall system cost factors

But there are potential disadvantages such as higher costs, a requirement for higher skilled labour to terminate the fibres and fibres being much less forgiving of abuse than copper connectors.

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