CAT6e and CAT6a are both based on CAT6 cable, and are advertised as having greater speed and longer runs. They are not, however, identical, and CAT6a cable tends to outperform CAT6e cable, especially on longer runs and when it comes to data speed. It is also more expensive to purchase and to install.
Want to know more of the specifics? Keep reading for a more detailed breakdown of CAT6e and CAT6a Ethernet cable.
What do the letters mean?
“CAT6” is short for “Category 6” cable, but what do the following letters mean?
“CAT6e” stands for Category 6 “enhanced”. Although this type of cable is not formally recognized by any technical organization or body, it is still produced by manufacturers as a unique class of cable that can match the bandwidth and data speed capabilities of regular CAT6 cable, but has better shielding to resist radio interference and crosstalk.
“CAT6a” stands for Category 6 “augmented”. This cable does have formal technical recognition from the Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA). CAT6a cable has greater data speed and a slightly longer run than regular CAT6 cable.
Both CAT6e and CAT6a have a maximum of 100 meters, or 328 feet. After this length, data speed drops off so dramatically that the cable is basically no longer functional. This is double the length that standard CAT6 cable can run.
Jacketing and Shielding
Both CAT6e and CAT6a cables come with different outer jacketing to suit a range of installation settings, including plenum, in-wall, riser, and non-riser spaces.
Both can also be found in shielded and unshielded grades. Shielded cable is required in installations where the Ethernet cable is adjacent to HVAC and/or high voltage wiring, and in instances where the cable is close to a generator or electrical motor.
While each of these cables transmits at a higher frequency than CAT6’s 250MHz, CAT6a is the clear winner here, with a transmission frequency of up to 600MHz.
While CAT6e is advertised as having transmission speeds up to 500MHz, because it lacks a formal specification, the truth is that the cable’s actual speed is dependent on how it is installed. CAT6e speeds thus vary between 250MHz to 500MHz.
CAT6a has a max data speed of 10 Gbps for up to 100 meters, which is 9 Gbps more than regular CAT6 cable. CAT6a cable can transfer 1 Terabyte of data in 20 minutes.
CAT6e, meanwhile, can potentially reach the same data speed, but like the transmission frequency, its actual speed will vary widely and is dependent on the cable termination and cable testing of each specific installation. CAT6e cable can transfer 1 Terabyte of data in 3 hours, which is equal to the amount of time it takes for standard CAT6 cable to transfer the same amount of data.
For both types of cables, crosstalk and interference will have an impact on data speeds and transmission frequency.
CAT6e is commonly found in home networks and for residential and office phone lines.
CAT6a is commonly used in office networks and data centers as well as high-end residences.
Cost of installation
Generally, higher-speed cable costs more to install. This is true of both CAT6e and CAT6a, for slightly divergent but related reasons.
As we’ve said, CAT6e cable has no official specification, and much of its performance is dependent on the equipment used in the installation as well as the expertise of the installer in optimizing data speed.
Similarly, CAT6a cable can only reach its full potential if the equipment it is paired with–patch panels, switches, networking hardware–can also support data speeds up to 10 Gbps. If instead it is used with hardware that maxes out at a lower data speed, then you’ll be paying for a more expensive cable but seeing zero benefit.
CAT6a cable is also heavier and less flexible than CAT6 and CAT6e cable, which makes it more difficult to install. The weight, however, comes from the same features that allow it to carry more data at faster speeds for longer runs, so it is a necessary trade-off.
Thinking about a future upgrade?
Most people don’t want to have to yank out their old matrix of Ethernet cable and install a new one with upgraded cable every ten years. Aside from being a tedious hassle, in many cases it is also cost-prohibitive.
However, as data speeds continue to increase and Ethernet networks play an ever-more-important role in business and communication, most people do recognize that they will need to increase their data capabilities in the future.
In this case, CAT6a is definitely the better choice for a one-time installation that pays long-term dividends. Its reliability over distance as well as its higher bandwidth usually exceeds the current needs of most customers, and thus allows room for future network expansion without the need for laying new cable.
Plus, if you ever do need to update the CAT6a cable to a higher grade, you’ll already have switches, patch panels, and network hardware that supports higher data speeds, so your cost to upgrade will be much reduced.
CAT6e looks pretty good on the surface, with its advertised data speeds and lower price point, but our preference for business is CAT6a cable.
CAT6a has a specific technical designation with the TIA, whereas CAT6e is more of a marketing term. Although CAT6a is more expensive than CAT6 or CAT6e, it offers great utility with its fast and reliable data speeds, as well as the possibilities it provides for future network expansion without the hassle of new cable installation.