Choosing the right data cable for residential networking

Choosing the right data cable for residential networking

With data bandwidth demands growing constantly, and trends like streaming on-demand TV, home automation and the internet of things taking off, the demands on home networks are growing exponentially. Not long ago the thought of a networked home seemed a bit far fetched — but in a few short decades we’ve reached a position where gigabit ethernet in the home has become a reality.

Modern twisted pair data cables suitable for home network use come in three broad categories — enhanced Category 5 (Cat 5e), Category 6 (Cat 6) and augmented category 6 (Cat 6a). The old Cat 5 cable specification has been dropped as an international standard, so the lowest specification data networking cable available today is Cat 5e.

The two things affected by the category of cable you choose for your home networking installations are a) the maximum network speed (or bandwidth) supported, and b) the maximum distance over which that speed can be achieved.

All of the standard cables available today are rated to support network speeds of up to 1 gigabit per second (1Gb/s) — or gigabit ethernet — which is the maximum bandwidth typical home network hardware can support. All of the cables available today are capable of handling the bandwidth demands of the contemporary home. But with bandwidth demand growing exponentially, and more devices than ever before (computers, tablets, mobiles… and maybe even the lights, the fridge, IP cameras and the central heating) connected to the home network, it won’t be long before the average Irish home demands much more from its network. By choosing the right network cable for your new build or renovation project today you can ensure there’s plenty of latent capacity to support the networking demands of tomorrow, without the need to replace cabling.

Here are your options:

Cat 5e — the cheapest option but with limited scope for expansion

Cat 5e has been on the market for more than 15 years, and is rated as suitable for 10BASE-T, 100BASE-TX (Fast Ethernet), and 1000BASE-T (gigabit ethernet) over a maximum cable installation length of up to 100m (including the length of any patch cables (connecting appliances to the core network) at either end of the installation.

Cat 5e cable is more than capable of handling the demands of today’s home network, but may struggle over the coming years as bandwidth demand increases and faster home networking hardware becomes more affordable.

Recommendation: A solid performer, and the cheapest option, Cat 5e cable will give you all the connectivity you need for the next few years, but may be found wanting when higher-bandwidth 10GBit networks become commonplace in the home. It is still a viable choice for many home networks where super-fast bandwidth isn’t likely to be a priority. Bear in mind that for many home users internet access (streaming video and cloud-based services) is going to be the key reason for connecting to a home network, and internet connection speed, rather than internal home network capability, becomes the limiting factor. Even the fastest internet connection available in Ireland today performs at well below the 1Gbit networking capabilities offered by Cat5e cable.

Cat 6 — up to 10 times the bandwidth over shorter distance, and a higher quality signal with less noise

Cat 6 cable was introduced to handle the higher bandwidth capability of next-generation 10GBit Ethernet networks. Widely used in business networking installations, 10GBit networks are still relatively uncommon in residential applications. However, as network hardware costs continue to fall, and bandwidth demand increases, they will become standard in the near future. Cat 6 cable is capable of supporting bandwidth of up to 10Gbit for cable runs up to a maximum distance of 50 metres, and will deliver 1GBit speeds for runs of up to 100 metres. It performs better than Cat 5e cable over comparable cable-run distances due to its more stringent specifications for crosstalk and system noise.

Recommendation: Cat 6 cable is a good choice if you’re looking to future-proof your new build or renovation project where shorter cable runs are required. Choosing Cat 6 cable means that for a relatively small increase in cost, the network will be able to cope with increasing home bandwidth demands for the foreseeable future.

Cat 6a — for future-proof networks over longer distances

Augmented Category 6 cable (Cat 6a) is very similar to Cat 6 cable, but thanks to an enhanced performance specification and improved alien crosstalk characteristics it supports full 10GBit bandwidth up to a maximum cable run distance of 100m. Using Cat 6a cable is more costly than Cat 6, but does provide the best overall performance where longer cable runs are necessary.

Recommendation: Cat 6a cable is the most expensive option of the three standards we’ve compared here, but the price difference may not be as much as you think, and Cat 6a offers the most future-proof solution for your residential and commercial networking projects — especially for larger networks.

Which cable should you choose?

Ultimately the cable you choose will depend on the project you’re working on, the budget available and just how “future proof” you want the network to be. Cat 5e will work fine for now, but may struggle to keep up as bandwidth demand increased, Cat 6 is a more capable option that’s ideally suited to higher bandwidth applications in smaller network environments, while Cat6a offers all-singing, all-dancing 10GBit capability across much larger networks.

If you’re looking for specific advice on the right cable for the job Kellihers Data Comms and Security specialists are here to help. Give them a call or drop them a line by email:

  • Michael O’Neill: Michael.Oneill1@rexel.ie / +353 (0)87 1820598
  • Valerie McHugh: valerie.mchugh@rexel.ie/ +353 (0)87 2494282
  • Dave Thomas: david.thomas@rexel.ie / +353 (0)87 9601204