Category Cables Demystified: From Cat5e to Cat8

April 28, 2023 Category Cables Demystified: From Cat5e to Cat8

As technology advances, it’s natural for the associated numbers to increase. Take video, for instance. 8K resolution is undoubtedly, purely from a technology standpoint, better than 4K. However, applying this thinking to the world of networks is not as straightforward as we might like it to be.  

When it comes to network cables, performance and interoperability do not always have a linear relationship with the Category number, which can make it difficult for the uniformed to make the appropriate network cable choice for their project. In this article, we’ll explore the differences between network cable types, along with their associated benefits and drawbacks. We’ll also explain why Cat7 and Cat7A are not fully recognised. 

A little bit of history…

Since the mid to late 1980s, cabling standards have been continuously evolving. The emergence of standards bodies and associated performance parameters has led to confusion about the correct use and interpretation of these standards and content, particularly for today’s network and AV installations.  

While global standards have emerged from American and European leadership, these viewpoints have resulted in a divergence in networking standards and terminology. In the United States, the most commonly used standard for network cables is the TIA/EIA-568 standard, which uses ‘Categories’ to define performance parameters and limits. In Europe, the International ISO/IEC 11801 standard uses ‘Class’ as a similar means of definition. (see below table fig.1) 

The term ‘Category’ (abbreviated as ‘Cat’) has become the widely accepted way of describing the type and performance of network cables and systems in various industries and markets around the world. However, it’s worth noting that this term isn’t technically accurate for reasons we will explain later.  

Despite this, it has gained popularity as a universal descriptor. In this article, we’ll be delving into the complexities of different standards, aiming to clarify any areas of confusion or misinterpretation that may arise. Ultimately, our goal is to help you make informed decisions when selecting products. 

It is a common misconception in the market that when we refer to data transfer rates or bandwidth, we are speaking in general terms. In truth, we are actually referring to specific Ethernet communications protocols such as 1000BaseT, 10GBaseT, 40GBaseT and others. These protocols, as defined by IEEE802.3, belong to the data link layer (layer 2) of the OSI 7 layer network model and are built upon the physical link characteristics outlined in TIA-568 / IEC11801. 

Cat5e Network Cable (Class D) 

The Cat5e (Category 5 enhanced) cable is a widely used twisted pair cable that can be found in legacy Ethernet networks and AV systems. This cable was an upgrade from the original Cat5 cable standard that was introduced in the mid-1990s. The original standard allowed for data transmission speeds of up to 100Mbps over a distance of 100 metres. However, as network speeds increased, it became necessary to develop an enhanced version of the cable that could support faster data rates and reduce crosstalk. 

In 2001, Cat5e was introduced with tighter twists in the cable pairs. These twists help to reduce interference and crosstalk between the wires, allowing for a 100MHz operating frequency at data transmission speeds of up to 1Gbps over a distance of 100 metres. This makes Cat5e suitable for most Ethernet networks

Despite being an older technology, Cat5e remains an active component of many networks due to its use of standard RJ45 connectors. This allows backward compatibility with modern network products, albeit with restricted bandwidth. 

Cat6 Network Cable (Class E) 

Cat6 cable, also known as Category 6 Ethernet cable or Class E, entered the scene in 2002 as an improvement over the previous Cat5e standard. This cable is designed to support a 250MHz operating frequency at data transmission speeds of up to 1Gbps over a distance of 100 metres, with an impressive 10 Gigabits per second (Gbps) over distances of up to 55 metres. It’s the perfect choice for high-speed networking equipment and other devices that demand fast connections

One of the key advantages of Cat6 cable is its higher bandwidth when compared to older cable types such as Cat5 and Cat5e. With a maximum bandwidth of 250 Megahertz (MHz), Cat6 cable can support more data at higher speeds than Cat5e cables. This makes it the go-to option for high-bandwidth applications like streaming video, online gaming and large file transfers. 

When it comes to terminating Cat6 cables, the process is similar to that of Cat5e cables, as it can be done with an IDC (insulation displacement contact) connection or crimp connectors. However, some cable manufacturers choose to use thicker gauge internal core wires (23AWG) to ensure they meet the Cat6 performance parameters.  

They may also add an internal cross member to separate the pairs or increase the individual twist ratios of the cores. As a result, Cat6 cables are typically thicker and stiffer, requiring a bit more care and precision during termination. However, with the right quality tools, the process is relatively straightforward and quick. 

Cat6A Network Cable (Class EA

The next step up from Cat6 is the Cat6A (Class EA) cable, which allows for a 500MHz operating frequency at data transmission speeds of up to 10Gbps over a distance of up to 100 metres. While Cat6 typically uses unshielded U/UTP cables and connectors to minimise cost while meeting performance requirements, Cat6A often instead takes advantage of a shielded construction to reduce alien crosstalk. These cables are usually constructed with F/UTP and U/FTP because they offer the best performance for the associated cost of construction

While unshielded technology can still be used for Cat6A, it can be a costly endeavour, as it is more challenging to create U/UTP cables and components than to utilise established and proven shielded technology to deliver the necessary bandwidth and frequency for compliance with the Cat6A standard. 

When it comes to terminating Cat6A, a little more care and attention is required, as there is usually a foil shield and drain wire that needs to be terminated into a shielded RJ45 plug/socket/module. This ensures correct grounding, bonding and earthing of shielded systems and networks, making for a more reliable and robust connection. 

Cat7 & Cat7A Network Cable (Class F & FA) 

The roots of Cat7 and Cat7A (Class F and FA) cables can be traced back to the early 2000s when the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) started working on a new standard for high-speed Ethernet networks. This standard, called 10GBASE-T, was designed to allow data transfer rates of up to 10Gbps over copper wiring. 

To achieve such high speeds, the new standard required a cable capable of handling higher frequencies while also providing superior shielding against crosstalk and electromagnetic interference. This resulted in the development of Cat7 cable, which can handle frequencies up to 600MHz and offers better protection against interference than previous Ethernet cable standards. In 2002, the ISO/IEC officially standardised Cat7 cable and in 2010, Cat7A, which have since been primarily used in high-speed networking environments and data centres. 

Like other twisted pair cables, Cat7 and Cat7A cables are made up of four pairs of copper wires twisted together to reduce interference and crosstalk. However, S/FTP construction is used in Cat7/7A cables to further minimise electromagnetic interference (EMI) and crosstalk, which can slow down data transfer speeds.  

This is typically a combination of overall metal foil, individual foils, and braid, depending on the manufacturer’s choice of cable construction, to achieve and exceed the necessary standards performance compliance. However, this contributes to challenging termination accuracy and time-consuming installation when compared to Cat5e and Cat6 cables. 

It’s important to note that ANSI/TIA does not recognise Class F (Cat7) and Class FA (Cat7A).  This is because the bandwidth performance is limited to 10G (Gigabits) and only the cable’s operating frequencies change—to 600MHz for Class F and 1000MHz for Class FA. Additionally, connection technology is not the universally accepted RJ45 format but instead proprietary and vendor-specific, namely ARJ45, GG45, and TERA, with limited equipment available for their use. 

Furthermore, the ISO/IEC international standards body embraced all countries and their legacy system practices when specifying performance standard parameters, not just for one country (the USA), which led to operating systems that use 600MHz + frequencies to be included.  

As a result, ANSI/TIA moved straight to Cat8 for a 2000MHz operating frequency, which allows up to 40G network bandwidths to be realised, while Cat7 and Cat7A remained limited to 10G network bandwidths, with additional operating frequencies available via the cable and RJ45 connections as the only interface to attach to virtually all electronic equipment. Cat7 and Cat7A, therefore, serve as references only within ANSI/TIA to the corresponding ISO/IEC Classes

Cat7 and Cat7A cables offer superior performance benefits. However, their advantages over Cat6A cables are minimal, as the bandwidth performance remains at 10G, with some cable constructions making it more time-consuming to ensure correct connector termination. For most residential and smaller commercial applications, Cat6A is more than sufficient, providing a degree of futureproofing for next-generation systems. Cat7 and Cat7A cables are also more expensive than Cat6A cables, meaning they may add unnecessary on-cost to a network solution. 

Cat8 Network Cable (Class I & II) 

Cat8 network cable has emerged as a newer and more advanced type of network cable, offering numerous improvements over its predecessors, including Cat6/6A/7/7A. Designed to support data transfer speeds of up to 40 Gigabits per second (Gbps) over distances of up to 30 metres, Cat8 is the go-to choice for high-performance applications such as data centres, server rooms, and other high-density environments

Despite its many network performance advantages, Cat8 is not without its drawbacks. Its limited distance range is a major obstacle, with its high-speed data transfer only possible over a channel distance of up to 30 metres. Moreover, the cost of Cat8 cable is significantly higher than that of older cable types like Cat6, making it less practical for smaller or less demanding networking applications.  

Adding to the complexity, Cat8 introduces connector confusion, as four types are available and ratified by either ANSI/TIA or ISO/IEC. While ANSI/TIA Cat8 and ISO/IEC Cat 8.1 (Class 1) use the more common ‘RJ45’ connector and are fully backward compatible with Cat5/5e and Cat6/6A, ISO/IEC Cat8.2 (Class 2) utilises either TERA, ARJ45, or GG45 (GigaGate 45) connectors, which are different but technically superior to the RJ45, as they relocate the pins to move the pairs further apart in the connector, thereby reducing crosstalk. 

Cat8 Cables Connectors Types
Fig 2: ISO/IEC Cat8 Connectors

Despite its advantages in terms of speed and bandwidth, Cat8 Network cable is typically only recommended for high-performance applications such as data centres, server rooms, and other high-density environments. It is important to carefully consider the distance requirements, cost, termination, and equipment needs of your networking application before choosing to use Cat8. For some applications, fibre optic connections may be a more cost-effective solution. 

In Conclusion

In today’s ever-connected world, the need for fast and reliable network connectivity is more important than ever. With a plethora of network cable options available, it can be challenging to determine which one is right for your needs

It is the belief at Kordz that our Cat6A cables, meticulously designed and manufactured specifically for professional installation, strike the perfect balance between network speed and affordability, providing fast and effective connectivity with robust cable terminations. While Cat8 cables boast higher bandwidth and faster data delivery, they are primarily reserved for high-performance data centres and come with a significant price tag. 

Moreover, the differences between Cat5e, 6, 6A, 7, and 7A cables are significant, with Cat7 and 7A cables used non-standard connectors and not fully recognised by ANSI/TIA. The average internet speed worldwide in 2023 is around 78.62Mbps, which is a fraction of the 10G speed that Cat6A offers, making it an ideal choice for most applications

It is crucial to consider the time taken to make each termination and test appropriately when planning and installing networks. In conclusion, while Cat8 cables offer unparalleled performance, Cat6A cables are the go-to choice for most network installations, delivering fast and reliable connectivity at an affordable price point

To ensure you are getting the optimal balance of performance, ease of installation and cost-effectiveness for your Cat cable needs, talk to your nearest Kordz cable distributor or check out our network cabling solutions.

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