Understanding Ethernet Category Types

Ethernet is today perceived as a game changing technology. It is a choice for networking and interconnecting devices in a LAN or sometimes different LANs. Ethernet is primarily a wired network technology used to connect a group of computers in a local area network (LAN). This is done to fulfill basic requirements such as sharing of data which is central to all workstations or a particular workstation. An Ethernet cable is one that you can connect to your modem or router with the other end connected to your standalone computer. In case of a network, an Ethernet cable offers direct Internet connectivity to computers and other connected devices. It’s one end is connected to the router and goes up to a good length such as 100 meters. There are various categories of this Ethernet cable which has been in use from the last 40 years or so. This white paper discusses the different Ethernet category types and why they are still useful in today’s age of advanced wireless network technologies. It also throws light on choosing the right network devices, such as switches and routers, with SFP modules, and the ones which are compatible with Ethernet as well as fiber optic cables.

Ethernet Cable Category Types

Ethernet Cables and Standards Discussed

Ethernet cables are a great option for small LAN-based networks, especially if you have Wi-Fi issues in your area. They offer a decent speed of data transmission and seamless connectivity for up to at least 100 meters as they are directly connected to the router. Cat5 and Cat6 are widely used types of Ethernet cables. Most of these cable types are compatible with Ethernet ports based on the network standard and speed. Cat5e and Cat6 cables require RJ45 connectors which are easily available. While all Ethernet cables perform the same basic connectivity function, they are categorized based on their IEEE standards and other parameters. These standards make it easy for you to choose the right cable for your application.

Ethernet Standards

Standardization has contributed to the widespread adoption for Ethernet. IEEE 802.3 was the first standard introduced in 1983. However, the Ethernet has evolved over the years. Some standards are obsolete, however, others are widely used today. The following are a few popular standards that are widely used today.

Name Speed Medium Duplexing Standards
10-Base T 10 Mbps UTP, Category 3+ Half- and full-duplex 802.3i
100BASE-TX 100 Mbps UTP, Category 5+ Half- and full-duplex 802.3u
100BASE-FX 100 Mbps Multimode Fiber Half- and full-duplex
1000BASE-LX 1 Gbps Singlemode Fiber Full-duplex 802.3z
1000BASE-SX 1 Gbps Multimode Fiber  Full-duplex
1000BASE-T 1 Gbps UTP, Category 5+ Full-duplex

Balanced Twisted Pair Cables

Legacy Ethernet cables are mostly made of copper. Using multiple metallic cables in a network may create noise or electromagnetic interference (EMI). This disrupts or slows down the data transfer process. On the other hand, if the cable pairs are twisted, it reduces capacitance, noise, and crosstalk. Several such individual pairs of cables are twisted together to form a long cable. These good conductor metals when twisted create a balance or symmetry between conductor pairs. Apart from twisting of pairs, most of these cables have a protective sheath or covering which further reduces noise. So, twisting of conductor pairs really set the foundation for all Ethernet classes of cables, primarily to reduce or nullify EMI between the inner and outer wires and other noise related issues.

Types of Ethernet Cables

Most Ethernet cables start with Cat followed by a number. Cat basically stands for Category and the number implies the specifications set by IEEE. Increasing order of numbers imply improved speeds and frequencies. So, periodically, IEEE introduces newer versions of Ethernet cable categories which offer improved bandwidths and speeds, and support high speed data transfer. Before categories of cables, ISO has defined Ethernet classes based on bandwidth capacities. There are classes A to F with sub classes in between and there is an optical class. Here are a few pointers which will ease the understanding of Ethernet classes:

  • Class A is typically for telephonic transmission and reception, usually with analog modems, and supports frequencies only up to 100 KHz.
  • Class B is applicable for telephonic voice transmission as well as basic level data transmission, and extends for frequencies up to 1MHz.
  • Class C is suitable for token ring applications and supports frequencies up to 16 MHz.
  • Class D supports up to 100 MHz frequency and is suitable for 10 Base and 100 Base Ethernet with a decent speed of data transfer.
  • Class E has the capacity to expend up to 250 MHz frequency with a data rate of 1000 Base and Fast Ethernet.
  • Class EA has the capacity for frequencies up to 500 MHz.
  • Class F can extend up to 600 MHz frequency
  • Class FA can extend up to 1000 MHz.
  • The optical class has virtually no limitation in terms of bandwidth, and is suitable for all applications above 10 MHz.

Ethernet Cable Category Types Explained

The cable categories belong to one of these classes as they are classified based on not just their physical traits but more so on their bandwidth or frequency capacity, number of conductor pairs, whether they are shielded, and the Ethernet signal they support. Here are the Ethernet cable categories and their details

  • Cat3 : This is one of those initial stage cables, not much in use now, except in really old networks. It is suitable for dual line voice telephony systems and 10 Base-T networks. This category of Ethernet cables may or may not be covered with a sheath. They have two, three, or four pairs of conductors and these cables connect with an RJ45 connector. They find applications in small offices, alarm systems, and so on.
  • Cat5 : This type was widely used until Cat5e came into the picture. It supports 10/100 Base-T Ethernet and a maximum frequency of 100 MHz. It is suitable for applications in small setups such as small-sized offices and schools. It may or may not have a sheath or covering and connects with the help of an RJ45 connector.
  • Cat5e : Here, “e” stands for enhanced, which implies this is an improved variant of the Cat5 cable. This supports 10/100 Base-T Gigabit Ethernet or a data rate of up to 1000 Mbps. This is the most common type of Ethernet twisted pair copper cables still used in a lot of networks. This type has some strict IEEE standards, which manufacturers need to adhere to. Cat5e has largely been successful in preventing EMI and capacitance for at least up to 100 meter distances. It is widely used owing to its affordability and can match Gigabit speeds in small networks. This type also may or may not be shielded with a covering and has four copper conductor pairs. Cat5e also finds applications in small to medium office setups which need a decent speed of connectivity. Cat5 has virtually become obsolete as Cat5e has replaced it.
  • Cat6 : These are designed with the intention of supporting high speed internet. This Ethernet cable category supports bandwidths up to 250 MHz and 10/100 Base-T Gigabit Ethernet. It supports speeds up to 10 Gbps. The drawback here is, when working with speeds of 10 Gpbs, Cat6 supports a distance of only up to 55m instead of 100m. This is typically meant for large scale businesses and applications which require high speed data transmission but within a small premise. This connects through RJ45 connectors and is suitable for a small to medium geographical premise such as a college campus or a manufacturing unit up to 100 meters. You can use these cables for gaming and live streaming applications. The twisting of these cables is much tighter for each pair compared to the previous types. Also, there are more number of twists in each pair compared to the previous types. In this type, there is a plastic spine which runs through the central portion of the cable. This type is sheathed and the covering is pretty thick which reduces noise and enhances performance
  • Cat6A : As the term implies, this type is an advanced variant of 6A, wherein “A stands for augmented. This thickly sheathed cable type overcomes the drawback of Cat6, which means it supports data transmission for up to 100m even for a speed of 10Gpbs. This cable type is long, much more flexible and totally helps eliminate EMI and crosstalk. It supports a bandwidth of up to 500 MHz. The thick sheath makes it physically robust and thick. So, it finds applications which may be sensitive to noise otherwise such as electricity distribution stations, telecom towers, radio stations, and so on.
  • Cat7 : This cable type supports super high data transmission speeds at 30Gpbs rate and has a huge bandwidth. It is applicable in slightly larger networks which may be complex and expansive. This cable type supports frequencies up to 600 MHz. The thick sheath surrounding the cable eliminates noise and improves signal strength. Additionally, it can achieve a speed of 100 Gbps for short distances such as up to 15m. This type requires special GigaGate 45 connectors for connecting to the Ethernet port. These robust cables with excellent speed are suitable in data centers.
  • Cat8 : This cable type supports super high data transmission speeds at 30Gpbs rate and has a huge bandwidth. It is applicable in slightly larger networks which may be complex and expansive. This cable type supports frequencies up to 600 MHz. The thick sheath surrounding the cable eliminates noise and improves signal strength. Additionally, it can achieve a speed of 100 Gbps for short distances such as up to 15m. This type requires special GigaGate 45 connectors for connecting to the Ethernet port. These robust cables with excellent speed are suitable in data centers.

Shielded or Unshielded Twisted Pair Cables: Which is Better?

There is no doubt that shielded twisted pair (STP) cables reduce noise, capacitance, and crosstalk. However, they may not be necessary on all applications. In some basic applications unshielded twisted pair (UTP) cables work better than STP cables. UTP cables are more flexible as they do not have any covering. STP cables are ideal for use in noise-prone and expansive networking environments which require a strong signal strength and fast speed. STP is definitely more expensive than UTP; however, in certain critical applications it proves to be cost-effective in the long run because of better data rates and long distance transmission capacity. Within STP cables, the twisting pattern differs which also impacts their capacity. The twisting could be as simple as a braid or it could be a foiled twisted pair (FTP). In FTP, each wire has its individual sheath which is also called screening.

Whichever cable type you use; you need to choose the right network device. If you are extending your network to fiber optics, this is even more crucial. While most fiber network devices have diferent types of Ethernet ports, it is important to check the number of ports that support Ethernet cables for a range of networks such as from 10 Base to 1000 Base.

Ethernet Compatible Fiber Optic Network Devices

As mentioned above, here are some pointers on choosing the right network device in accordance with your cable type.

  • It is important to choose the right network device as they help enhance your data transmission rate, connect two or more dissimilar networks, and offer the required flexibility and scalability to your network..
  • Most industrial network switches come in small form factor pluggable mode and have number of ports ranging from 4 to 24.
  • They may be managed or unmanaged switches with one or two fiber ports and the remaining for Ethernet ports with SFP slots.
  • The regular Cat5 or Cat6 cables can connect to fiber media converters, and this helps extend the Ethernet signal over a much larger distance. These media converters can link two or more copper cable networks as well as copper and fiber networks, whether single mode or multimode.
  • They may be managed or unmanaged switches with one or two fiber ports and the remaining for Ethernet ports with SFP slots.
  • In fact, there are 10/100 or 10/100/1000 Base media converters which support Gigabit Ethernet and come as SFP modules as well. They can help your network extend beyond 100km.
  • SFP transceivers can also connect to copper as well as fiber optic cables. They connect to copper cables with an RJ45 connector and need an LC connector to connect a fiber optic cable. These devices facilitate easy data transfer between fiber and copper cables.
  • PoE devices are extremely useful in such hybrid networks as they cut down the need for external power supplies. PoE media converters are designed to accommodate more than five to eight ports for 10/100, 10/100/1000, and 1000Base-T. These are ideal for networks in remote locations.


The best part of using Ethernet cables is their basic nature and the fact that Ethernet as a technology is approved and standardized by IEEE. The organization upgrades Ethernet cable categories based on the requirements. Hence, the standard of this technology can never be doubted as it is internationally recognized. Additionally, Ethernet cables cover a huge range from Cat5 to twisted pair to fiber optic. While Cat5e and Cat6 are still widely used, many players are gradually moving towards fiber optics. Switching to fiber optics while still continuing with your legacy network is a great choice for most players when it comes to sticking to their budget and yet expanding the geographical periphery of your network. While you may be using a twisted pair copper cable, you can always install a media converter and connect it to a fiber optic cable for better data transmission of bulky audio and video files. VERSITRON offers various fiber optic devices and installation kits and offers solutions to upgrade your network without digging your legacy network. For your legacy networks, continued use of Cat6 is the best option as of now. For details, you can visit www.versitron.com and go through the information on various fiber optic network devices such as media converters, switches, connectors, modems, and so on.

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