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What Are the Different Types of Computer Networking Cable?

By Jim Carroll
Updated May 16, 2024
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In general, there are two main types of computer networking cable, namely unshielded twisted pairs (UTPs) and shielded twisted pairs (STPs). UTP cables are by far the most popular for individual use; most of the time, STPs are used within servers and in computer mainframes. The technology behind STPs is older, and as networks advance many experts expect that these variations may be phased out. They aren’t as capable of handling Ethernet and cable-based connections, as they’re usually optimized for slower speeds. Most of the cables for sale today are of the UTP variety, though even here the choice isn’t always simple; there tend to be many different options and at least six different categories, each with its own specifications and ideal uses. People who are interested in purchasing networking cable either for use at home or in an office setting are often wise to start by researching the options and understanding their differences.

Main Goal and Purpose

Computer networking is a means of enabling machines to talk to each other and usually also a central server. Though much of this can happen wirelessly, network cables and hard wiring are usually required at least somewhere. Computer networking cables connect different components and commonly serve as a port of entry and courier for data packets and digital information. Desktop computers and laptops use them to connect to modems and other hardware like networked printers, for instance, and they’re also used at the server level to connect various routers and hubs. Different cables are usually optimized for different used, and they can come in a variety of sizes, lengths, and thicknesses as a result.

Unshielded Twisted Pairs

Unshielded twisted pair (UTP) is the most common type of computer networking cable in use today. It consists of four pairs of eight wires and is connected using an RJ-45 plug that looks like an over-sized telephone connector. UTP is used by the Ethernet networking protocol, and is what most people think about when they envision cables connecting computers to the online space.

Differentiating the Categories

The Telecommunications Industry Association/Electronics Industry Association (TIA/EIA), a U.S.-based standards-setting organization, divides UTP cables into six categories, depending primarily on the data speed each is rated to carry. TIA/EIA standards aren’t usually enforceable, but the group has a lot of traction when it comes to promoting uniformity in telecommunucations both within the United States and around the world. As such, the six categories are usually recognized internationally. They range from Category 6, which includes cables deemed capable of sending data as quickly as 1 gigabit per second, to Category 2, which only sends data as quickly as 4 megabits per second. Category 1 is reserved for basic telephone use.

Categories 5, 5e, and 6 are the most common varieties found in ordinary use, which is to say, in homes and for personal networking uses. Category 6 cable is the fastest standard for UTP. It differs from Category 5e in that it has better resistance to electrical noise and external interference, also known as crosstalk. Category 5, which isn't restricted to only four pairs but could have up to 100 pairs in a so-called "backbone application," has been superseded by Category 5e. Category 4 is used in Token Ring networks and, as such, is not in general use anymore. Category 3 is still used in some telephone installations and in Power over Ethernet (PoE) applications.

Category 7 cable has been proposed as a standard to allow 10 Gbps data transmission. It is technically a shielded twisted pair (STP) cable, however, and needs a different connector from previous UTP connectors. In November 2010, equipment manufacturers decided to continue using the RJ-45 plug for their 10 Gigabit Ethernet products. Category 7 is not recognized by TIA/EIA.

Scenarios for Shielded Twisted Pair Cables

Shielded twisted pair (STP) cables are used by the Token Ring networking protocol. This sort of cabling is basically two pairs of four wires, with a copper braid or metallic shield around the wires. Although it is still being used in some installations, it is being phased out by the growth of Ethernet and UTP computer networking cable. There are some other network cabling types in use, such as fiber-optic cabling; these cables are fairly specialized, however, and they are not really in general use anymore in most placess.

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