In the continuously evolving world of high-speed communication, copper cable classes have come to define where we stand in terms of networking prowess. While Category 3 cables of the 1980s could support voice services and 10BASE-T Ethernet, Category 6 cable and connectors of today are apt for Gigabit network applications.
Amidst it all, Category 6A, also known as CAT6A, now stands tall as the minimum cost-effective, future-proof upgrade for the Gigabit era. Not only is it backwards compatible with CAT6 and Cat5e cables but supports data transfer rates up to 10 Gbps and a maximum 500 MHz bandwidth as well.
That said, let us explore the CAT6A cable more in this blog, with deep dives into:
- How do you identify CAT6A and CAT6 cables?
- CAT6 vs CAT6A comparison
- CAT6A shielded vs CAT6A unshielded
- How reliable is the CAT6A cable in terms of future speed and distance?
- 1 How to Identify CAT 6 and CAT 6A cables
- 2 Difference between CAT 6 and CAT 6A
- 3 Shielded vs Unshielded CAT 6A Cable
- 4 CAT 6A – For the Future
- 5 FAQs
How to Identify CAT 6 and CAT 6A cables
Source – CAT6 cable (black) and CAT6A cable (blue). A cross-section of a shielded CAT6A cable (bottom).
The debate of CAT6 vs CAT6A cables is always raging in the industry. Before we get into the specifics, let us learn how to identify both individually.
- The main identifier for CAT6 and CAT6A cables is printed on the cable jacket — Category 6 or Category 6a respectively.
- In terms of physical properties, remember that CAT6A cables are thicker and bulkier than CAT6 cables. This is often perceived as a demerit of CAT6A cables as their larger size and weight reduces the amount of cable that can fit inside a tray as well as the bundle size.
Here, it is important to mention that connector type cannot be used to distinguish between the two cables. This is because the RJ45 connector goes in both the cable connections.
Difference between CAT 6 and CAT 6A
The mention of the common RJ45 connector in both CAT6 and CAT6A cables brings us to an interesting question – are there more similarities between the CAT6 and CAT6A cables? Yes, as you can note below:
- Both have eight copper conductors twisted into four pairs.
- Both support up to 1000 Mbps.
- Both can be shielded or unshielded.
- Both terminate to TIA 568A or B colour code specifications.
- Both have installation use case-based jackets.
As you can see, both CAT6 and CAT6A can therefore be considered as close as siblings. But many key differences peg the CAT6A cable as an upgrade.
1. Speed: As we have read previously, both CAT6 and CAT6A cables can go up to 10 Gbps. However, the CAT6A cable speed can last up to 100 m in distance. This is a big upgrade over CAT6 cables which can relay 10 Gbps speed only up to 33-55 m. The 55 m distance is applicable for Gigabit Ethernet but it drops down to 33 m in high crosstalk conditions.
2. Material Used: Given the fact that CAT6A cables are thicker and bulkier than CAT6, they require thicker copper conductors and jackets. Additionally, CAT6A cables are also twisted tighter than CAT6 cables. This ups their requirement for higher specification wall jackets, patch panels and RJ45 connectors. At this point, if you are thinking that the installation of CAT6A cables should be more difficult and expensive, then you are correct.
3. Durability: In terms of durability, yes, the bulkier nature of CAT6A cables makes them a more long-lasting solution. However, internally, all Ethernet cables are a bit fragile. This has an impact on their flexibility as any higher-than-recommended bending can damage the cable and decrease the performance quality. Naturally, CAT6A cables have a larger bend radius than CAT6 cables, making the former less flexible.
4. Bandwidth: We have already read that the speed of both the cables is theoretically the same, i.e., up to 10 Gbps up to a certain distance. However, the bandwidth frequency is where CAT6A cables represent a significant upgrade. CAT6A cable bandwidth frequency is double that of CAT6, with the former being able to transmit data at 500 MHz.
Shielded vs Unshielded CAT 6A Cable
In the above sections, you must have come across the terms CAT6A shielded cable and CAT6A unshielded cable. What are they?
Simply put, a CAT6A shielded cable has an outer foil shield around each pair of copper. A shielded CAT6A cable may also have such a configuration around 4 copper pairs instead of individual pairs. A metal housing is also present, protecting the modular jacks, patch panels and outlets. In terms of terminology, the CAT6A shielded cable is often denoted by F/UTP, where F stands for Foiled.
All these configurations are absent in an unshielded CAT6A cable, hence the name. It is represented by the term U/UTP, where U stands for Unshielded. Here, the first letter of the term (F or U) indicates what type of shielding is present overall. In contrast, the second set of letters (UTP) indicates what type of shielding is present on each pair of copper cables as well as the balanced element.
Other configurations of the shielded/unshielded CAT6A cables include CAT6A S/FTP, where S stands for Screened (for the outer screen braid that surrounds all the pairs), and CAT6A U/FTP. Interestingly, the CAT6A S/FTP cable is normally a CAT7 cable.
All said and done, what is the benefit of the insulation provided by shielding in a CAT6A cable? Well, it acts as a blocking shield against heavy electromagnetic interference. This makes shielded CAT6A cables ideal for industrial environments.
CAT 6A – For the Future
CAT6 cables have become the standard in new buildings over the last 8-10 years. However, we are seeing an increasing trend of CAT6A cable adoption across hospitals, data centres and universities. This is down to the performance upgrade that CAT6A cables bring to the table. Amongst them all, it is the future-proofing that CAT6A cable provides which is causing a surge in its popularity and deployment.
One should prefer installing the CAT6A cable as opposed to a CAT6 cable when:
- The plan is to upgrade to 10 Gbps speeds over longer run lengths up to 100 m.
- The planned lifetime of the new cable network is 5+ years.
- You want to install a cost-effective cable solution that might get exorbitant to replace by a higher specification cable in the future.
These are the reasons why CAT6A cables are now the primary recommendation for any new installations in education or healthcare industries that are becoming smarter by the day. CAT6A cables also support 10G-reliant wireless systems and improve the Power over Ethernet (PoE) performance.
Ultimately, while you might be paying 20-35% more for installing shielded CAT6A cables over unshielded CAT6 cables, the network’s future readiness and greater performance makes the initial investment worth it.
Is CAT6A faster than CAT6?
Technically, CAT6A speed is not faster than CAT6 speed. Both the cables transmit up to 10 Gbps data speeds. However, there are two key differences which make CAT6A better in terms of speed. The first one is that CAT6A transmits data at a 500 MHz bandwidth frequency which is double that of CAT6. Secondly, this improvement in bandwidth allows CAT6A to maintain 10 Gbps transmission speed till 100 m – which is again longer than CAT6 cable’s 55 m limit.
What does the A stand for in CAT6A?
The A in CAT6A stands for ‘Augmented’. This term denotes the performance improvements that the CAT6A cable brings over its predecessor – the CAT6 cable – while being of somewhat similar configuration and construction. Hence the huge number of similarities as well as differences between the two cables.
Is CAT6A shielded?
CAT6A copper cables come in both shielded and unshielded configurations. However, the majority of CAT6A cables sold are shielded. The term ‘Shielded’ refers to a configuration of the CAT6A cable wherein either all the copper pairs are together insulated by an outer foil shield or individual pairs are shielded with the same shield.
Why Cat 6a over CAT6?
CAT6A has multiple advantages over its predecessor – the CAT6 cable. These include delivering 10 Gbps data transmission speed over a greater distance, having a higher bandwidth frequency, being more cost-effective to install since CAT6A can future-proof the network for higher bandwidth and speed applications, and offering more durability due to its thicker, bulkier build.
Is there a cat 7A?
Yes, there is a CAT7A cable which is an augmented version of the CAT7 cable. In terms of performance improvements over its predecessor, the CAT7A cable has:
- 1000 MHz bandwidth (vs only 600 MHz available in CAT7)
- 10 Gbps maximum data rate
- Provides fully shielded solutions
Is CAT6A the same as Cat7?
No, CAT6A is not the same as CAT7 cable. CAT6A is an improved iteration of the CAT6 cable and can reach 10 Gbps speeds up to 100 m distance at 500 MHz bandwidth frequency. In contrast, a CAT7 cable can also provide 10 Gbps speeds but at 600 MHz bandwidth frequency. Thus, there is a slight difference between the two cables, with the CAT6A offering almost similar performance as a CAT7 cable – but in a more cost-effective way.
Can you splice the Cat 6a cable?
Yes, you can splice a CAT6A cable. Since it is backwards compatible with CAT6 and CAT5E cables, CAT6A can be spliced and joined to these cables with ease. But in such a case, its performance will drop down to the lowest category cable level or according to the type of connector installed. There are also some CAT6A cable splicers in the market that allow for direct connections with the need for RJ45 connectors or couplers at both ends.
What is the difference between cat5 and CAT6?
The CAT5 cable is an older category copper cable compared to the CAT6 cable. If we compare their performance, the CAT5 cable only allows a maximum bandwidth of 100 MHz and a maximum data rate of 100 Mbps. In contrast, a CAT6 cable allows a maximum bandwidth of 250 MHz and a maximum data rate of 10 Gbps (up to 55 m).