I’m sure you’ve seen the blue wires stuck up above your ceiling tiles at work or in your basement. Those are ethernet cables that are run from your home’s switch or patch panel and terminate at the ethernet jacks in your wall. They’re functionally the same as the ethernet cable that plugs into the back of your motherboard, but these are behind-the-scenes and not intended to be seen. They ensure that you stay connected and have the quickest connection possible. But quickness wasn’t always an option.
Back in the 1990s, computers didn’t need blazing fast connection (nor was it really feasible to roll out to customers, but that’s another story), so they got the job done. Cat 3 cable enabled the use of 10 mbps connection, and it was fazed out relatively quickly. The replacement for Cat 3 that enabled 100 mbps and gigabit was Cat 5, and more recently, Cat 5e. (Cat 4 was used for voice communications.) The wires you plug in as well as the infrastructure wires behind your walls are likely one of these, as modern computers use 100 meg or gigabit for their ethernet and internet connections. These speeds are sufficient for most modern needs, but the envelope is still being pushed. Cat 6 allowed for connection speeds of 10 gigabit, but only for short distances before the signal became too noisy or decayed. Data centers jumped on this standard, as they rely on short cable runs. Cat 6 was also cheaper than Cat 6A, which doubled the range over which 10 gigabit could be used Few consumers are using Cat 6 or Cat 6A, but kudos to those of you who had the foresight to get these cables installed.
Out of the range of consumers entirely, the future in ethernet cables are Cat 7, Cat 7A, and Cat 8. Cat 7 offers a range improvement on Cat 6, and Cat 7A will pave the way for 40 gigabit ethernet (at 50 meters) and even up to 100 gigabit (15 meters), Cat 8, although not yet a ratified standard, is expected to increase the range of 40 and 100 gigabit connections, but also expand the possibilities of connection speed, potentially up to 300 or 400 gbps. Once again, data centers will be all over this standard, as they will be able to significantly improve the speed at which their servers can communicate.
So whether you’re an office worker staring at the ceiling and taking note of the information superhighway in the rafters above your head or a data center technician swapping out cables to the newest standard, ethernet cables run our connected lifestyle. Yeah, wireless is convenient, but it’s much slower and unreliable than a hard connection. Until we get high-speed global WiFi, expect to encounter these kinds of cables long into the future.