Cabling for a new office can be tricky because it’s all about prediction.  Not only do you have to choose how many ports you need and where they will go (based on how many employees you expect to have in the near future and where they will sit), but you also have to decide between Cat5, Cat5e, and Cat6 cabling.  Let’s start with a quick definition:

Cat5 – Category 5 cabling is an out-of-date standard for Ethernet cabling, which is capable of speeds up to 100 megabits per second.

Cat5e – Category 5e is an improvement on the original Cat5 design.  From the outside they look the same, but Cat5e is capable of speeds up to 1,000 megabits per second. This is because Cat5 and Cat5e cable both have 4 pairs of wires inside, but Cat5 only utilizes 2 pairs at a time while Cat5e uses all four.  The other improvement comes from tighter twisting of those wires.  Cat5 was prone to “crosstalk”, interference between wire pairs, which the tighter twisting in Cat5e remedies.

Cat6 – Cat6 twists the pairs even tighter, and insulates each pair in its own sheath, which prevents crosstalk even in areas with outside interference.  Its other improvement is that it handles information at a higher frequency (250MHz instead of the previous 100MHz), which translates to speeds up to 10,000 megabits per second.

So what should you cable your office with?  Well first of all, forget about Cat5.  As of 2011 its completely out of date for the speed demands of today’s technology.  The real question is: Cat5e or Cat6.  The answer is a little grey, but there are two schools of thought:

cat5e vs cat6, cat5 vs cat6

1. Cat6: Opt for the more expensive investment up front because it will pay off in the future.  Currently there are no devices (in typical office spaces) that require 10,000 megs per second of connectivity, so the extra power of Cat6 is pointless… For now.  But recent history has shown us that advancements in data and processing power increase exponentially.  So the Cat6 school of thought depends on this phenomenon continuing as is.

2. Cat5e: Opt for Cat5e because hard-wired connections will soon be a thing of the past.  As fast as wired technology is advancing, wireless technology is advancing faster.  The Cat5e school of thought says “By the time our devices require the strength of Cat6, everything will be wireless anyways.”

If your business needs to upload and download huge time-sensitive files consistently throughout the day, the choice is Cat6.  For the rest of us, though, its a predication game.  Will wireless technology improve in bandwidth and reliability?  Yes.  Will it improve in time to meet the demands of next year’s devices?  Nobody knows.