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New IEEE Ethernet standard ups CAT5e, CAT6 bandwidth to 5 Gbps

The latest IEEE Ethernet standard gets more life out of CAT5e and CAT6 cables by raising bandwidth from 1 Gbps to as much as 5 Gbps.

West Chester University couldn't be happier with the latest IEEE Ethernet standard, which can squeeze out much...

higher data speeds from CAT5e and CAT6 cables used in most wireless LANs. The standard, ratified this week by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, means the Pennsylvania-based university that serves 14,000 students can postpone for at least five years replacing some, if not all, of the 2,500 cables running to access points across the campus. A full cable upgrade would cost $625,000.

"Re-cabling our campus would be an enormous cost," said Trevor Beach, network engineer at WCU.

IEEE 802.3bz provides a midlife kicker to CAT5e and CAT6 cabling by increasing the maximum bandwidth from 1 Gbps to 2.5 and 5 Gbps. The speed boost means most organizations can delay an expensive wiring upgrade for several years.

"In five years, you will absolutely need to be doing [cable] upgrades, regardless," said Craig Mathias, a wireless communications analyst at the Farpoint Group in Ashland, Mass. However, taking advantage of the new IEEE Ethernet standard in the short term is "a very reasonable approach to take."

Companies likely to embrace the IEEE Ethernet standard first are those that plan to upgrade their access points to the latest 802.11ac Wave 2 specification, which can handle a theoretical 7 Gbps. Many businesses embracing Wave 2, which is developed by the Wi-Fi Alliance, expect to use it to replace wired Ethernet to workstations and desktops, while also providing a network connection to laptops, smartphones and tablets.

"I think 802.3bz will play an important role in allowing enterprises to enjoy the benefits of Wave 2," said Nolan Greene, an analyst at IDC.

Vendors supporting the IEEE Ethernet standard

Major vendors that sell unified wired and wireless networking products, such as Cisco, Extreme Networks and Hewlett Packard Enterprise, will have interoperable products supporting the IEEE standard, Mathias said.

"[Tech] buyers can eliminate any undue concern over incompatibility in vendor implementation," he said. "All the major vendors will get this right."

Before buying 802.3bz networking gear, companies should test whether their CAT5e and CAT6 cables can handle higher speeds without the upgrade, Mathias said. Cable that's significantly shorter than 100 meters might easily handle much higher throughputs.

"There's nothing magical about this specification," Mathias said. "Some cable is really, really good [at handling higher speeds]."

Long term, companies increasing their dependency on wireless connectivity will need more bandwidth. To meet that demand, the Wi-Fi Alliance is working on an 802.11ax and an 802.11ay specification that could reach a maximum throughput of 10 Gbps and 20 Gbps, respectively.

At the same time, bandwidth pricing is expected to drop dramatically from about $7 per gigabit in 2015 to roughly $1 by 2020, according to San Francisco-based Crehan Research Inc. As prices plummet, the amount of networking bandwidth used by enterprises is expected to soar sevenfold from 200 terabits to 1,500 terabits.

Such projections are behind Farpoint's recommendation that companies upgrade the cabling in their access layers as soon as possible. "Gigabit is where it's at today, and the costs are so low, it doesn't make sense to constrain your network," Mathias said.

At WCU, reducing bandwidth is not an option. Demand is rising as students head online to watch high-definition movies and TV shows from Amazon and Netflix, Beach said. "Traffic is certainly increasing."

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