We’ve come a long way in the cabling world. When I started my life with business computers, coax was all the rage. (Quick, what was coax cable rated for? That’s right: 10MB/sec.) There were substantial problems with coax in a networked environment, but CAT5 didn’t finally surpass coax until manufacturers started producing more components and prices came down. Now with the transition to CAT6, we’re facing many of the same questions we had back then. While the jump to CAT6 won’t be as gut wrenching as the transition from coax to CAT5, there are still plenty of things to think about.
Everything involved in making the jump to CAT6 is a little more expensive, and therein lies the question: Is it worth it? While it may not be much for small jobs, it can add up if an entire ivory tower is being cabled.
Just so we know what we’re talking about in hard numbers, let’s look at the differences between CAT5 and CAT6 cable. CAT5 is rated at 100MHz or about 100MB/sec (CAT5e is rated the same but with higher testing tolerances). CAT6 is rated at 1,000MHz or about 1GB/sec. Pricing for 1,000 feet of CAT5 bare cable is about $125 or $0.125/foot. CAT6 on the other hand is about $175 for 1,000 feet or $0.175/foot. So we’re looking at a difference of about 5 cents/foot.
The irony of cable speed is while the cable can be rated a certain speed, it’s everything around the cable that actually gets you the speed. It’s the setup of the bits that fly through the cable, the patch panels, patch cables, and the terminators where you really don’t lose any speed. If the network isn’t engineered properly, CAT6 cable will only delay problems from being seen. Speed is a great cover-up for a poorly engineered network. I’ve seen CAT5 networks running VOIP with heavy usage purr like a kitten and CAT6 networks screaming for help.
In order to achieve “true CAT6,” everything from switch to NIC must be rated as such. Not just the cable, switch and NIC — I’m talking about patch cables, patch panels, wall plates and terminators. If not, you may see speeds at a CAT6 level but you could also have intermittent issues that will be a thorn in your side. Some other things to keep in mind to minimize problems are the routing of cables and the cable ties. Because the tolerances are closer, cables should be strung away from those nasty florescent lights. They should also be bundled with Velcro rather than tie wraps. Tie wraps can “pinch” a cables insulation, which can increase things like crosstalk and jitter.
We don’t have the material issues we had with coax. There is plenty of CAT6 cable, plenty of NICs, plenty of switches and plenty of computer horsepower to handle it all. While CAT6 costs are more, it’s not back breaking for most jobs, especially since we don’t have to deal with converting the entire infrastructure in one fell swoop. In most cases what we are dealing with now is a value/planning judgment. Back with coax, I could have sold management the upgrade to CAT5 with just reliability, even if the cost was fairly high. I don’t have that luxury today. The pain points just aren’t there. Most networks are stable and the speeds are acceptable for all but the heaviest power users. And yes, you can run VOIP very successfully on CAT5. My office is doing it.
So where is the line to upgrade? I would say with a new installation, go CAT6. For a new line within an existing space, go CAT6. If you’re planning on staying in your existing space for the foreseeable future — I’m talking years — then I would say maybe, depending on your budget and need. The only time I would rip out existing cabling is if the network is going to increase the utilization. With the last two options I would add this caveat. If you see a change in your future, I would recommend you start getting your infrastructure updated for the transition. I’m talking patch cables, patch panels, wall terminations, switches and NICs. Most of that can be done incrementally to spread the cost out. You’re going to need the hardware upgraded as it is so you might as well start the planning before crunch time.
So there you have it. My 2 cents on when I would use CAT6 cable. Obviously, it’s a choice each company makes for themselves; there is no hard and fast rule.
How do my rules align with your company rules? Are you planning for any CAT6 installs in the near future?
Structured Cabling Louisville, Cabling contractors, cat5, cat6, fiber optic