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Copper Cabling Basics

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This article is an ongoing article on the basics of copper cabling, call back regularly to see updates.

Copper Cabling Basics

While the push for faster internet speeds and larger bandwidth combined with the convenience of wireless technology means we are relaying more and more on fibre optic cabling and WIFI, copper cabling is still a major player in the world of data transmission and is relayed upon to do the bulk of the heavy lifting. To begin with, all Ethernet cables are of two key varieties i.e. UTP (unshielded twisted pair) or STP (Shielded twisted pair) variety. They all have the same construction structure, but vary a great deal as far as transmission frequency and throughput are concerned.

However, some terms need to be defined before any meaningful comparison can be presented:

How to Interpret Ethernet Cable Speed?

10 Mbps = 1.2MB/s. i.e. 1 hour to download a DVD (4.5GB)

100 Mbps = 12 MB/s. i.e. 1 hour to download 10 DVDs (assuming 4.5GB average)

1.0 Gbps = 125 MB/s. i.e. 1 hour to download 100 DVDs (assuming 4.5GB average)

10 Gbps = 1.25GB/s. i.e. 1 hour to download 1000 DVDs (assuming 4.5GB average)


What is Frequency?

Imagine you can only drive two cars, one passenger each, at a given time on a highway in each of the two lanes. Now you would be able to transfer more people over the same highway if you can drive the same two cars 500 trips per day compared to 250 trips per day.

Now imagine the same analogy but replace cars with bits of data. So if you can only drive two bits on a given data-line then 100 Mhz (or 100 million cycles per second) will give more bandwidth (i.e. ability to transfer data over the same line) then 50 Mhz (or 50 Million cycles per second).

What is Bandwidth?

Bandwidth describes the maximum data transfer rate of a network or Internet connection. It measures how much data can be sent over a specific connection in a given amount of time. For example, a gigabit Ethernet connection has a bandwidth of 1,000 Mbps.

While bandwidth is used to describe network speeds, it does not measure how fast bits of data move from one location to another.


Copper Cables


Cat3 Cable

The Category 3 or Cat3 standard was used heavily in the early 90's for wiring offices and homes. It’s still used in two-line phone configurations and can easily be adapted to run VoIP as long as a dedicated LAN for the VoIP telephone sets is created. Cat3 has however largely fallen out of favour for wired networking thanks to the Category 5e cable’s superior performance.

Cat3 can be relied on to handle data speeds of up to 10 Mbps, but no more. Its maximum frequency clocks in at 16 MHz. Like many other cabling options, it relies on copper for data and power transmission.

While theoretically limited to 10BASE-T Ethernet, it can actually support the 100BASE-T4 speeds by using 4 wires instead of 2 to achieve 100 Mbps throughput. This is the reason for telephone cables coming in 10pr, 20pr, 30pr & even 50pr or 100pr or larger configurations.

Unlike its counterparts Cat 1, 2, 4, and 5 cables, Cat 3 is still recognized by TIA/EIA-568-B as its defining standard.

Cat5e Cable

From around the year 2000, Cat5e overtook Cat3 as the Ethernet cable of choice for LAN networking. Cat5e uses either the 10BASE-T or 100BASE-T standard for data transmission. Category 5e cable only ever contains four twisted pairs of copper wire with the twist ratio tighter than that in Cat3 cable to greatly reduce crosstalk and increase transmission loads & speeds. Cat5e is used in structured cabling solutions for computer networks such as Ethernet over twisted pair. The cable standard provides performance of up to 100 MHz and is suitable for 10BASE-T, 100BASE-TX (Fast Ethernet) and 1000BASE-T (Gigabit Ethernet).

As with all other types of twisted pair cabling, CAT5e cable runs are limited to a maximum recommended run length of 100m. That’s up to 1 Gbps (1000 Mbps) of throughput at a distance of up to 100 meters, a massive improvement on it predecessors. As of today,Cat5e is the most common type of cabling found in modern homes and offices for Ethernet purposes.

Cat5e Shielded Cable

While very similar to Cat5e in appearance, Cat5e shielded introduces some new wrinkles in the equation. Now the tightly twisted copper wire conductors are sheathed in heavy-duty shielding to eliminate crosstalk even further. Thanks to its internal upgrades, shielded Cat5e cable is capable of retaining the 1000BASE-T speeds in “noisy” areas or areas where there is lots of electromagnetic interference. The extra shielding can work as a double edge sword however, providing extra protection means the cable becomes more cumbersome to work with.


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