Ethernet Cable vs Network Cable: What’s the Difference?

Network cables connect people across a wide range into a shared network for communication and entertainment. Ethernet cables further revolutionized cabling technology and are one of the most used network cables today.

Network cable is the general term used to describe cables that are used for connecting devices to a network. The Ethernet cable is a category of network cable that is primarily used to connect a computer to a specific area network and the internet using the Ethernet protocol.

This article will describe the various types of network cables. It will also describe Ethernet cables, their purpose, and its differences from other network cables. It will also enumerate and explain the types of Ethernet cable and its various categories.

Types of Network Cables

types of network cables

A network cable is a general term used for all types of aluminum or copper cables that are used to connect devices to a network or transfer data from one device to another. Network cables are then subdivided into various types depending on their overarching purpose.

Coaxial Cables

Coaxial cables were an all-purpose network cable that was used in the 1980s and 1990s to transmit radio frequency (RF) signals. It was most commonly used to connect the TV to the antenna. This cable contains the standard components like sheath, braiding, insulator, and conductor.

Ethernet Cable

The Ethernet cable is the most commonly used network cable in network infrastructure. 

It is primarily used to physically connect a computer to a network. Today, Ethernet cables are mostly used for internet connections or connection of a computer to a computer homegroup. It is easily distinguished from other network cables because of its modular Registered Jack 45 (RJ45) connection.

Fiber Optic Cables

Fiber optic cables use light to carry signal and data from one device to another. It has a glass core at the center with several protective layers that reflects and carry light between two points. 

Fiber optic cables can transmit and transfer data across long distances and are mostly installed underground. It is a malleable cable despite having glass at its core and can provide a reliable wide access network (WAN) connection. Its difference in components and materials as other network cables makes it immune to electromagnetic interference (EMI) and radio frequency interference (RFI). 

Currently, there are two types of fiber optic cables: the single-mode fiber (SMF) optic cable and the multi-mode fiber (MMF) optic cable. The SMF can cover wider distances and supports higher bandwidth as compared with MMF. However, MMF cables can transmit more data at a time than SMF at a limited distance. 

What is an Ethernet Cable?

While fiber optic cables are gaining traction as a viable network cable of the future, Ethernet cables are still an essential component of home and business network infrastructures. It can also be used for a variety of purposes and can cover various distances. 

The Ethernet cable started in the 1970s as the primary connection used for the Xerox machine. It was given to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and became the open standard for network connections. 

Specifically, Ethernet cables can be used for local area network (LAN), wide area network (WAN), and metropolitan area network (MAN). It can even be used as a power supply cable through its Power Over Ethernet (POE) variant. 

POE Ethernet cables can transmit both power and data using a single Ethernet cable. This is especially useful for temporary installations where there are no electrical power sources available. 

As a network cable for LAN connections, Ethernet cables can be used for both peer-to-peer LAN and client-to-server LAN. Peer-to-peer LAN helps transfer data from one computer to another through an Ethernet cable. This is an old but effective data transfer method but has a limited number of connections.

The client-to-server LAN is a two-tier LAN that allows computers to connect to a server or a powerful computer that manages a network. This allows wide access connection to network data and files and can accommodate various connections as compared with peer-to-peer LAN. 

Types of Ethernet Cables

stp vs utp ethernet cable

There are two types of Ethernet cables: Unshielded Twisted Pair (UTP) and Shielded Twisted Pair (STP). Ethernet cables have twisted pairs, or wires twisted across one another inside the cable, to balance the current that moves across both wires. This reduces electromagnetic interference and also makes the cable resistant to external interference. 

Twisted pairs can come as solid or stranded. Solid twisted pairs are more robust and can support greater lengths than stranded twisted pairs. These are mostly used for permanent installations. Stranded twisted pairs are more bendable and flexible and can be used for indoor connections. 

UTP is more common than STP and is mostly used for the Cat5 and Cat6 Ethernet cables. It features a single plastic sheath that covers all the twisted pairs of wires inside the cable.

Where-as STP wraps each twisted-pair with a braided mesh of copper and conductive polymer as an additional shield and then wraps a plastic sheath across all the pairs. This improves the electromagnetic and noise interference resistance of the Ethernet cables for a more stable connection. 

UTP is cheaper than STP but it has a greater risk for crosstalk and interference. Crosstalk refers to the signal interference of one transmission system to another. STP, through its greater shielding, reduces the risk of crosstalk and interference on the Ethernet cable.

The STP variant of Ethernet cables is best used for areas with a high volume of signal and electrical transmissions. Thus, it is a more reliable Ethernet cable to use for outdoor installations. UTP variants can provide similar performance as STPs as long as it is removed from high-interference areas. It is most commonly installed indoors to minimize the risk of interference. 

Ethernet cables are considered inferior when compared to fiber-optic network cables in terms of length and speed drop-off. Long Ethernet cables are more susceptible to external interference and attenuation or signal loss.

Categories of Ethernet Cables

A common question about ethernet labels stems from how they’re labeled. “Cat” means “Category.” The number that follows the “Cat” specifies the compatible version that’s supported by the cable.

Generally speaking, higher numbers mean faster speeds and greater frequencies, ie Cat6 is faster than Cat5.

Cat1 and Cat2 Ethernet cables were popularly used for telephone connections.

Cat3 and Cat 4 were for token ring networks or the type of networks in the 90s where tokens transfer from various computers to transfer data. 

Cat5 was a popular generation of Ethernet cable at the start of the 21st century. It can support bandwidths of up to 100MHz and can span 100 meters before attenuation occurs. Cat5e was the enhanced version of the CAT5 cable and provides better crosstalk resistance. 

Cat6 Ethernet cables started the incorporation of shielding and are the first generation of STP Ethernet cables. Cat6 can support 1Gbps and can span a little over 200 meters. Several varieties of the Cat6 can also support a bandwidth of 10Gbps, but only at a maximum length of 55 meters.

Usually, for internet speeds reaching 1Gbps, the Cat6 Ethernet cable is the minimum requirement to transmit internet data at high speeds. 

The Cat7 Ethernet cable is also an STP Ethernet cable and can provide a minimum bandwidth of 10Gbps. It also provides faster transmission speeds but is more expensive than Cat6 Ethernet cables. 

Lastly, the Cat8 Ethernet cables have a minimum bandwidth of 40Gbps at 30 meters. It is also an STP Ethernet cable like the Cat6 and Cat7. This Ethernet cable lies at the ideal length as longer cables tend to slow down the transmission speed while short cables are susceptible to signal reflection or the bouncing of signal back to its source.

For most home connections, Cat5e is the minimum in terms of sufficient speed, bandwidth, and resistance to crosstalk. However, for future-proofing purposes, the Cat6 Ethernet cable provides sufficient shielding and up to 1Gbps bandwidth, which is becoming standard for most internet service providers. 

Final Thoughts

Network cables are a crucial part of human history in terms of connecting people towards a single network across a wide area. As technology improved, various types of network cables were invented to provide faster connectivity.

The Ethernet cable is one of the longest-standing standards for network cables and is continuing to evolve to keep up with the improvements in telecommunication and information technology.

About the author

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Corey Knapp

Ever since Corey had a fiber line installed, he's had the networking bug. On APTrio he enjoys writing about his networking experiences and sharing information to help beginners and professionals alike.