In June 2002, the Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA) published the category 6 additions to the TIA-568 standard, making the new cabling standard official in the eyes of the technology industry. Does this mean that you should start planning to replace your current category 5e cabling infrastructure? Not necessarily. However, you should begin to assess your future cabling needs and start taking advantage of the increased speed and reliability of category 6 cabling.
Here, I'll introduce you to some of the highlights of the category 6 standard, discuss compatibility issues, and then provide you with some tips on when to implement the new cabling in your enterprise network.
Introducing category 6
Category 6 cabling provides several benefits and improvements over the category 5 and 5e cabling infrastructures, which are commonly found in today's organizations. Perhaps the primary benefit of category 6 is a guaranteed bandwidth of 200 MHz. Streaming media applications are straining the limits of category 5e cabling, and network administrators who support such applications will immediately reap the rewards by using this new standard of cabling. In addition, you can be certain that as category 6 becomes more widely deployed, many other applications will take advantage of the higher speeds that can be achieved by using category 6 cabling.
Although higher bandwidth is usually the first thing that most people notice about category 6, there are other features that have been improved over category 5 and category 5e cabling that make it possible to transmit data at higher speeds. The new standard provides for improved near-end crosstalk (NEXT) and far-end crosstalk (FEXT) elimination by requiring that the wire pairs be twisted more frequently than in previous cabling standards. These improvements help reduce the number of errors and retransmissions that can occur because of NEXT and FEXT, ensuring that the higher speeds do not compromise the reliability of the signal transmission as it passes over the wire at 200 MHz.
Category 5 and category 6 compatibility
If you are concerned about category 6's compatibility with your existing category 5 equipment, don't worry. Category 6 cabling is completely compatible with your existing equipment and will provide category 5 speeds when used with networking equipment that does not yet support category 6. However, until you upgrade to category 6-compliant networking equipment, you will not gain the increased bandwidth and the other improved features of a category 6 cable infrastructure.
To ensure that your category 6 patch cables are made with the high quality demanded by the category 6 standard, TIA recommends that you purchase premade patch cables that have been factory tested and certified. However, this doesn't mean you can't make your own patch cables. If you are an experienced technician who is used to making your own category 5 patch cables, you should have no more difficulty making the new category 6 patch cables. However, you must ensure that you are using the correct connectors because, although the familiar RJ-45 category 5 and category 6 connectors look similar, they are actually quite different. Category 6 connectors provide much better transmission performance and are not interchangeable with legacy category 5 connectors.
Another point of compatibility that is sometimes questioned relates to how category 6 cabling is designed and produced. Some manufacturers are designing their category 6 cabling with a spline to increase the separation between the pairs of wires. The additional separation of the cables is meant to further eliminate NEXT and FEXT. The category 6 standard doesn't dictate the need for the additional separation, and the use of a spline is completely optional. The category 6 cables that you purchase may or may not have a spline, depending on which manufacturer you buy your cables from. Neither method of cable construction appears to have an advantage over the other, and all that you really need to be concerned with when purchasing cable is that it meets the category 6 standards.
Why you should implement category 6
Unless you are in the process of cabling a brand new facility, it is probably not feasible for you to deploy category 6 across your enterprise network. In fact, unless you have a compelling reason that you should replace your existing category 5 cabling, there is absolutely no need for you to even consider such an expensive undertaking. However, you should seriously consider using category 6 cabling for all new data runs that you need. Doing so will ensure that the new runs will be compatible with your existing equipment and that they will be compatible when you eventually upgrade your networking equipment to category 6-compatible gear.
If you are concerned about the cost of using the new cabling standard, you shouldn't worry much. Although category 6 cabling is slightly more expensive at this time, it won't be long before the price drops and there is no difference between category 5 and category 6 bulk cable prices. For example, you can purchase 1,000 feet of category 5e cabling for about $225. The same amount of category 6 cabling will cost you about $250. While this price difference may seem high if you buy several thousand feet of cable, if you factor in the cost of running another data pull to the same location when you upgrade your networking equipment for category 6 compatibility, you will find that you are actually saving quite a bit more in the long run.
One argument that has been made against using category 6 cabling is in regard to an optical fiber cabling infrastructure. While you will definitely have extremely high data transfer rates, you will pay at least twice as much for the optical fiber cabling and the necessary transceivers as you will for category 6. While there are situations that will benefit from an optical fiber cabling solution, such as optical imaging systems for the radiology departments in your local hospital, this type of cabling will not produce enough return on investment to warrant its use for the average desktop computer user.
The future is category 6
There is little doubt that category 6 cabling will overtake category 5 as the cabling standard for the enterprise network. As more and more organizations begin to implement category 6 as their cabling standard, you will begin to see more category 6-compliant networking equipment used in corporate networks. Although it will take a few more years before category 5 is completely gone, the shift to category 6 has already started in earnest. Many organizations are running category 6 cabling for all new data pulls throughout their enterprises, and most cabling companies are recommending that their clients adopt this practice.
As I've explained, it makes sense to use category 6 as your cabling standard from this point forward. Not only will you save money in the long run, but you also will be ensuring that all new data runs are fully compatible with the new networking equipment that you will be buying over the course of the next five to 10 years.