AZ Networks

Ethernet VS WiFi

Before the widespread use of WiFi, Ethernet served as the primary method for connecting devices. It involved running cables in a LAN or WAN to facilitate data transfer between devices. Ethernet allows machines to identify data meant for them and send data to other devices. Despite the prevalence of WiFi, Ethernet remains popular due to its faster, more reliable, and more secure data transmission compared to wireless methods. For those seeking optimal internet performance, Ethernet is a recommended choice, especially for organizations prioritizing high-speed, secure, and reliable connections.

History of Ethernet

Ethernet was developed in 1973 by engineers at Xerox PARC, led by Robert Metcalfe and David Boggs, enabling the connection of multiple computers in a LAN. It provided a set of data transmission rules inspired by the luminiferous ether. After Xerox released its trademark, the IEEE formalized the 802.3 standard (Ethernet) in 1983, leading to its dominance due to its open nature and backward compatibility.

Initial Ethernet speeds reached 10 Mbps, with subsequent advancements including 100 Mbps Fast Ethernet in 1995, Gigabit Ethernet in 1999, and 10-Gigabit Ethernet in 2002. The introduction of Power over Ethernet (PoE) in 2003 allowed devices to use a single cable for power and networking. Ethernet capabilities continued to evolve, achieving speeds of 40 Gbps in 2010 and 100 Gbps later the same year. Presently, 40 Gbps represents the highest speed available for home use, surpassing the needs of most users.

Ethernet and WiFi

Even if your experience has been solely with WiFi, you are likely acquainted with Ethernet plugs and cables. The cable linking your modem to your WiFi router or main mesh unit is probably an Ethernet cable equipped with an RJ45 connector. Ethernet provides three primary benefits over WiFi: it is faster, more reliable, and more secure. However, it necessitates the connection of cables between devices, and these devices must have Ethernet ports. Setting up a network with Ethernet can also be intricate and expensive.

Ultimately, the speed you obtain will consistently be constrained by the least capable component, whether that be the cable, port, or switch. Let’s examine each of these aspects more closely.

Ethernet Cables

There are seven categories of Ethernet cable in use today, offering various maximum bandwidth and data rates.

  • Cat 5: Up to 350 MHz and 100 Mbps
  • Cat 5e (enhanced): Up to 350 MHz and 1 Gbps
  • Cat 6: Up to 550 MHz and 1 GbpsCat 6a (augmented): Up to 550 MHz and 10 Gbps
  • Cat 7: Up to 600 MHz and 10 Gbps
  • Cat 7a: Up to 1 GHz and 40 Gbps
  • Cat 8: Up to 2 GHz and 25 or 40 Gbps

At a fundamental level, cables consist of wire pairs twisted together with a plastic covering (known as UTP or Unshielded Twisted Pair). However, some cables integrate metallic or foil shielding (STP or FTP, signifying Shielded Twisted Pair or Foiled Twisted Pair). Apart from protecting against electromagnetic interference, shielding adds thickness and reduces flexibility to the cables. When purchasing an Ethernet cable, the manufacturer typically outlines its capabilities, while basic specifications are commonly imprinted on the plastic casing.

Despite their overall durability, Ethernet cables are susceptible to damage, particularly with frequent plugging and unplugging. If you are running cables around your residence, exercise caution with tight bends and avoid high-traffic areas where they might encounter impact or pressure. Thin or flat Ethernet cables may seem appealing, but they often offer reduced shielding and durability.

When an Ethernet cable sustains damage, it may not completely cease functioning, but it could be recognized by connected devices as a cable of lower category, thereby limiting its speed. I experienced surprise when this occurred to me. A Cat 7 cable, initially rated for 10 Gbps, had been operating smoothly for months. However, it suffered damage unnoticed by me, resulting in my 1 Gbps connection being restricted to 100 Mbps by the router I was testing.

Although there exists a limit on the length of an Ethernet cable before the signal strength decreases, this is typically not a concern when setting up your home network.

Ethernet Ports

Presently, numerous routers and mesh systems are equipped with a restricted count of Ethernet ports. Similar to cables, these ports possess diverse ratings but are generally more uncomplicated. Gigabit ports are prevalent, with several routers providing 2.5 Gbps ports, while a few support 10 Gbps. Typically, the maximum data rate is indicated on the port for routers, but you might need to refer to the specifications for other devices.

Ethernet Switches

If you require additional ports or intend to distribute Ethernet cables throughout your residence, an Ethernet switch may be necessary. These switches come in different sizes and allow you to connect a single Ethernet cable from your router and multiple cables to various rooms or devices.

Switches are typically categorized as managed or unmanaged. If you enjoy customization and desire the ability to configure and oversee settings, prioritize channels and traffic, and potentially access more security features, opt for a managed switch. On the other hand, unmanaged switches are simply plug-and-play. While they are generally more affordable and suitable for most households, they offer limited customization options.

Using Ethernet in the Home

Employing Ethernet cables within your household can provide the aforementioned benefits of speed, stability, and security, contingent upon your house’s construction and your willingness to undertake drilling. While WiFi presents a simpler alternative, the speeds it delivers typically fall significantly below your internet service provider’s maximum speeds. Implementing Ethernet cables allows for a much closer approximation to these maximum speeds.

For most individuals, installing cables in every room would be excessively disruptive. However, those utilizing a mesh system with support for wired backhaul should consider connecting an Ethernet cable from their primary router to their nodes or satellites for optimal system performance. Otherwise, the mesh system will utilize a wireless band, restricting bandwidth for devices and resulting in diminished WiFi speeds for any devices connected to a node. Even when using wireless backhaul, connecting a spare Ethernet port on a node to devices such as smart TVs, game consoles, and computers can significantly enhance speed and stability compared to relying solely on WiFi.

What About WiFi?

For the majority of people, WiFi remains the preferred option due to its ease of device connectivity. If your WiFi setup is functioning effectively, it is advisable to maintain it; however, it is susceptible to interference and instability. If you encounter complications, it might be worthwhile to contemplate utilizing Ethernet, as there are occasions when a wired connection proves superior.