Coaxial cable is a type of copper cable specially built with a metal shield and other components engineered to block signal interference. It is primarily used by cable TV companies to connect their satellite antenna facilities to customer homes and businesses. It is also sometimes used by telephone companies to connect central offices to telephone poles near customers. Some homes and offices use coaxial cable, too, but its widespread use as an Ethernet connectivity medium in enterprises and data centers has been supplanted by the deployment of twisted pair cabling.
Coaxial cable received its name because it includes one physical channel that carries the signal surrounded -- after a layer of insulation -- by another concentric physical channel, both running along the same axis. The outer channel serves as a ground. Many of these cables or pairs of coaxial tubes can be placed in a single outer sheathing and, with repeaters, can carry information for a great distance.
Coaxial cable was invented in 1880 by English engineer and mathematician Oliver Heaviside, who patented the invention and design that same year. AT&T established its first cross-continental coaxial transmission system in 1940. Depending on the carrier technology used and other factors, twisted pair copper wire and optical fiber are alternatives to coaxial cable.
How coaxial cables work
Coax cables have concentric layers of electrical conductors and insulating material. This construction ensures signals are enclosed within the cable and prevents electrical noise from interfering with the signal.
The center conductor layer is a thin conducting wire, either solid or braided copper. A dielectric layer, made up of an insulating material with very well-defined electrical characteristics, surrounds the wire. A shield layer then surrounds the dielectric layer with metal foil or braided copper mesh. The whole assembly is wrapped in an insulating jacket. The outer metal shield layer of the coax cable is typically grounded in the connectors at both ends to shield the signals and as a place for stray interference signals to dissipate.
A key to coaxial cable design is tight control of cable dimensions and materials. Together, they ensure the characteristic impedance of the cable takes on a fixed value. High-frequency signals are partially reflected at impedance mismatches, causing errors.
Characteristic impedance is sensitive to signal frequency. Above 1 GHz, the cable maker must use a dielectric that doesn't attenuate the signal too much, or change the characteristic impedance in a way that creates signal reflections.
Electrical characteristics of coax are application-dependent and crucial for good performance. Two standard characteristic impedances are 50 ohm, used in moderate power environments, and 75 ohm, common for connections to antennas and residential installations.
Types of coaxial cables
Hard-line coaxial cable relies on round copper tubing and a combination of metals as a shield, such as aluminum or copper. These cables are commonly used to connect a transmitter to an antenna. Triaxial cable has a third layer of shielding that is grounded to protect signals transmitted down the cable. Rigid-line coaxial cables are made up of twin copper tubes that function as unbendable pipes. These lines are designed for indoor use between high-power radio frequency (RF) transmitters. Radiating cable mimics many components of hard-line cable, but with tuned slots in the shielding matched to the RF wavelength at which the cable will operate. It is commonly used in elevators, military equipment and underground tunnels.
Uses of coaxial cables
In the home and small offices, short coaxial cables are used for cable television, home video equipment, amateur radio equipment and measuring devices. Historically, coaxial cables were also used as an early form of Ethernet, supporting speeds of up to 10 Mbps, but coax has supplanted by the use of twisted pair cabling. However, they remain widely in use for cable broadband internet. Coaxial cables are also used in automobiles, aircraft, military and medical equipment, as well as to connect satellite dishes, radio and television antennae to their respective receivers.
Most coaxial specifications have impedance of 50, 52, 75 or 93 ohm. Because of widespread use in the cable television industry, RG-6 cables with double or quad shields and impedance of 75 ohm have become a de facto standard for many industries. Nearly 50 distinct standards exist for coaxial cable, often designed for specific use cases in amateur radio or low-loss cable television. Other examples include RG-59/U used for carrying broadband signal from closed circuit TV systems or RG-214/U used for high-frequency signal transmission.
Connectors for coax range from simple single connectors used on cable TV systems to complicated combinations of multiple thin coax links, mixed with power and other signal connections, housed in semi-custom bodies. These are commonly found in military electronics and avionics.
Mechanical stiffness can vary tremendously, depending on the internal construction and intended use of the coaxial cabling. For example, high-power cables are often made with thick insulation and are very stiff.
Some cables are deliberately made with thick center wires, resulting in skin-effect resistance. It results from high-frequency signals traveling on the surface of the conductor, not throughout. If the center conductor is larger, it results in a stiff cable with low loss per meter.
Coaxial cables can experience a variety of different forms of interference. Signal leakage occurs when the electromagnetic field passes through the shielding on the outside of the cable. In other cases, outside signal can leak through the insulation. Straight-line feeds to commercial radio broadcast towers have the least leakage and interference, because these cables have smooth, conductive shields with few gaps in them. Interference is most significant in nuclear reactors, where special shielding is needed.