What Are the Major Types of Computer Network Cables?

February 24, 2021 • Devin Partida

Computer networks are vitally important structures in the modern world. The best-known and most widely-used public computer network is the World Wide Web, although there are many others throughout the world, both public and private.

Of course, computer networking wouldn’t be possible without several types of computer network cables. What are network cables made of? What are the advantages of each kind? Keep reading to learn more about the surprisingly interesting world of network cabling!

Different Types of Computer Network Cables

The following should be helpful in demystifying the different kinds of cabling, their materials and the situations where each one provides the best results. Choosing the right computer network cable should be done with just as much care as choosing any other hardware component.

Unshielded Twisted Pair (UTP)

UTP is the most popular and inexpensive type of computer network cable on the market today. They’re considered one of the best options for tying together computers within a school network. Product quality within this category ranges from telephone-grade cables to the highest of high-speed cabling.

Each UTP cable has an outside jacket containing four separate pairs of wires. Every cable receives a different number of twists, measured per inch, to ensure minimal interference between the pairs. The tighter these twists are, the higher the data transmission rate of the cable.

UTP cables appear in the following categories. Rarely used categories have been omitted:

  • Cat 1: Speeds up to 1 Mbps (Telephone-quality, used for voice)
  • Cat 3: Speeds up to 16 Mbps (used for 10BaseT Ethernet)
  • Cat 5, 5e and 6: Speeds from 100 Mbps to 10,000 Mbps (used for Gigabit Ethernet)

Shielded Twisted Pair (STP)

UTP cables are affordable and convenient, but network engineers may substitute STP cables if electrical and radio interference — e.g. from lights and industrial motors — is a worry. STP cables also support longer runs of cabling and therefore larger physical networks.

STP cabling appears in three variants:

  • Each pair of wires within the jacket has its own foil shielding.
  • The cable has foil shielding over all the wire pairs as a single group.
  • Double shield twisted pairs have foil shielding around each pair as well as around the whole group.

Coaxial Cable

Coaxial cabling is one of the more difficult variations to install in a network, but it’s physically more robust than other types and holds up extremely well to interference. Moreover, coaxial cables — also simply called “coax cables” — support far longer network runs than either UTP or STP cables.

Coax cables effectively function like a guide for signal waves traveling at useful frequencies, like those required for radio and television. At the center of each coaxial cable is a single conductor fashioned from copper. A thick plastic layer serves as insulation between this conductor and the second layer — a braided metal shield. The outermost layer is a thick but flexible plastic.

Coaxial cable can be thin or thick:

  • Thin: Also called “thinnet” or “10Base2,” these coaxial cables support maximum lengths of 185 meters (approximately 606 feet).
  • Thick: Also called “thicknet” or “10Base5,” these thicker cables support segment lengths up to 500 meters (1,640 feet). Thicknet cables are moisture- as well as interference-resistant.

Fiber Optic Cable

Fiber optic cables transmit light, rather than electronic signals, through a center core made of glass. This glass is protected by multiple layers of flexible protective materials. Because light is the carrier, this type of computer network cable does away entirely with the problem of signal interference.

Whereas each of the preceding cable types typically finds use within the same room, building or series of offices, fiber optic cables are the standard for expanding computer networks between multiple buildings or across a campus.

Fiber optic cables support substantially higher transmission rates as well as much longer runs of cable. It’s the cable of choice for demanding content distribution tasks, such as streaming high-resolution video.

Copper-based computer network cables typically offer speeds that max out at 100 Mbps. Fiber optic cables support Gigabit Internet, like Google Fiber, which boasts speeds of 1,000 Mbps.

Fiber optic cables are as close as we have right now to a “future-proof” computer network cable technology. Some tech demonstrations have posted speeds of 1 petabit per second even over distances of kilometers at a time. This is the capacity required to serve an 8K-resolution video to 10 million individuals at the same time.

Can’t Stop the Signal

These types of computer network cables are the most common ones in use right now, but they probably won’t be the last we develop in our march into the future. Networking technologies advance rapidly these days, and engineers are quick to iterate on even these deceptively simple pieces of hardware on a regular basis.

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