Whether you’re planning a new workplace, upgrading the cabling in an existing business or setting up a home office network, choosing the right cable is vital. It can make a huge difference to data speeds and therefore to business efficiency. But how is Cat6 different from Cat5? And when would you use fibre optic? Let’s look at the answers to some of these questions.

Note that if your business is suffering from slow internet speeds, for example, faster “Cat” cables will help. But if your equipment or internet connection isn’t capable of transferring data at the faster speeds, you won’t get the benefit of the better cables.

Cat5 and Cat5e

You may well have an installation that is running on Category 5 cable, known as “Cat5”. If you don’t know, you can find out quite easily by looking on the cable – the type of cable will be written on it.

Cat5 was the previous cabling standard, and it may still be adequate for your needs. However, as commercial applications get more data-hungry, it may not be able to cope. You may need video-conferencing or data streaming and may find that these are not achievable using your existing cable infrastructure.

Most cabling in buildings is Cat5e, a standard that has been in use since the turn of the twenty-first century. There’s been a lot of change since then in the way we use data – in particular, the use of cloud computing, which involves the ability to send and receive information rapidly from virtualised applications.

Cat5e cables are copper with four twisted pairs and a bandwidth of 100MHz. The cable reduces interference from other signals and noise. Within Cat5e cables, there are many different kinds. Some are ruggedised for use outdoors or suitable for being buried in the ground. Most are suitable for Gigabit Ethernet installations or high-speed LANS.

Cat6 and Cat6a

Cat6 can handle a bandwidth of 200 MHz. You’ll need Cat6 if you plan on using Voice Over Internet applications such as VOIP phone systems, door entry cameras or Power Over Ethernet (POE) devices. These are devices that take their power from the Ethernet LAN data cables they are connected to. They don’t need power cables, which can simplify the installation when desk space is limited or a high number of cables are in use.

Cat6 cabling is also less liable to signal noise and transmits data more quickly. Gigabit Ethernet networks need to transmit data at 200MHz+, so Cat6 has become a standard for use in these installations. A 100-metre length of Cat6 cable can transfer data at 1000 megabits per second. The cables also have less crosstalk with other nearby cables, so the data arrives without transmission errors.

Cat6 is proving particularly popular for conference rooms and training rooms, where media may need be transmitted or received. In fact, it looks as though Cat6 is pushing out HDMI and becoming the de facto transmission standard for audio-visual information.

If you need transmission frequency that is twice that of Cat6, then Cat6a can deliver 500 MHz. Wireless communications and video streaming both require this kind of performance.

Cat7, Cat7a and Cat8

It won’t come as a surprise that these cables deliver lower crosstalk and higher speeds. These are the most recent products. Most company applications and home office networks aren’t going to need the kinds of speed and capacity they offer – yet. However, the story of cabling is of more and more demand for speed and bandwidth, so if you’re investing for the future, you may feel it’s worth doing some future-proofing and over-engineering a little.

How Are the “Cat” Types Different from Fibre Optic?

A good cable supplier such as CableIntelligence.co.uk will stock a range of fibre optic cable alongside “Cat” copper cables. This is because many businesses that have found capacity constraints using Cat6 are not looking at Cat7 and Cat8 cables. Instead, they are switching to fibre optic for some parts of their wiring. They may use fibre optic to join together different parts of their network – perhaps on different floors of a building.

Because fibre optic uses light instead of electricity to transmit signals, it’s very resistant to crosstalk and interference. The cable can also be used over much longer distances without the need to amplify the signal. Even at 10Gb per second, fibre optic signals are much cleaner than those sent by electrical cables.

However, fibre optic cables and other equipment, such as network interface cards, are more expensive than traditional copper cables. So a business needs to do a cost-benefit analysis to weigh up the increased speed, cleaner data and longer cable runs of fibre optic against the cheapness and established technology of the “Cat” cables.