What Is an Ethernet Cable?

Learn everything you need to know about Ethernet cables to get the best connection possible.

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Last Updated: Dec 21, 2023
A frayed Ethernet cable exposing several wires within
Ethernet cables are made of various paired copper cables. (Image: Shutterstock)

Ethernet cables are so ubiquitous that it’s easy to take them for granted, but they are the lifeblood of any internet network. The cables act as information highways that can transmit data from one point to another, typically working faster and more reliably than a wireless connection. Wi-Fi is king, but even wireless internet networks rely on Ethernet cables in some form. Whether you have a wired or Wi-Fi internet connection, you’ll want to know more about Ethernet cables to get the best performance out of your network.

How Ethernet Cables Were Invented

The name Xerox doesn’t carry the same weight it used to, but the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) was once at the cutting edge of technology. It’s where Robert Metcalfe invented the Ethernet cable in 1973.

“Ethernet” came from a now-debunked 19th-century scientific theory known as luminiferous ether. The idea was that this luminiferous ether was a medium in which light could travel. That notion proved to be incorrect, but the “ether” part of the term was combined with “network” to create “Ethernet.” It’s an apt name for a technology that’s essentially a medium in which data travels.

Who Should Use an Ethernet Cable?

You won’t need to connect every device via Ethernet, but wired devices enjoy a faster and more stable internet connection than wireless devices. Unlike Wi-Fi signals, which can be obstructed by large objects such as walls, and other wireless signals, Ethernet cables can maintain the same speed and bandwidth. Most modern Ethernet cables can run as long as 100 meters before internet speed is affected. They’re reliable and hardly ever an issue when troubleshooting an internet connection.

If you can’t have your internet dropping out because you’re on important business calls, then a wired connection is what you need. In addition to video calls, a wired internet connection is necessary for online gaming, livestreaming, and TV streaming. A laggy multiplayer gaming session or low-quality stream is bad form, so it’s best to keep those devices wired with an Ethernet cable.

Where to Plug in an Ethernet Cable

Internet connection setups vary from household to household, but there are two main ways to connect. The simplest is the gateway, an Ethernet port placed on a wall that connects to a wireless router or Wi-Fi extender via a single Ethernet cable. The other way is the modem-and-router combo, with an Ethernet cable going from the modem to your router’s wide area network (WAN) port. The WAN port is typically labeled as such, and it’s often a different color than the local area network (LAN) ports.

Once your router is set up, you can connect devices to it by plugging in an Ethernet cable from a LAN port to your device. Most devices will immediately accept the wired internet connection and won’t require a password like Wi-Fi connections. The downside of wired connections, however, is the limited availability of LAN ports on a router. You’ll need an Ethernet switch if you have more devices than ports.

Ethernet Switches and Accessories

An Ethernet switch extends the number of LAN ports, ensuring you have enough ports for every device you need to connect. An eight-port switch will provide an additional seven LAN ports, with one port used to connect to your router. Ethernet switches with double-digit ports can cost over $100, but you can get a 1 Gbps, eight-port model for under $50. Most people will be fine with a 1 Gbps Ethernet switch since the top 20 fastest cities in America list average download speeds below 1 Gbps. If you have a faster 10 Gbps internet connection, however, a 1 Gbps Ethernet will significantly limit your internet speed.

Another Ethernet accessory is the Ethernet adapter, which extends an Ethernet connection via electrical wiring. It works by connecting your router to one Ethernet adapter plugged into a nearby wall socket and plugging the other adapter into another wall socket in your home. The internet connection can then travel across rooms via the electrical wiring in your home. This type of hybrid internet connection combines the speed and stability of Ethernet with the convenience of Wi-Fi, but it’s not technically wireless.

The Ethernet adapter mentioned above is not to be confused with the other kind of Ethernet adapter, which is made for adding Ethernet functionality to devices. Devices that lack an Ethernet port, such as laptops, tablets, and phones, can benefit from an Ethernet adapter. It’s a useful accessory when you need a fast, higher-bandwidth connection to download or upload large files. These Ethernet adapters have a USB or USB-C port on one side and an Ethernet port on the other. Ethernet ports can also be found on USB hubs.

Differences in Ethernet Cables

The Ethernet cables from the 1970s may look similar to what is used today, but they couldn’t be more different. Modern Ethernet cables can transmit more data at a faster clip over longer distances, allowing internet speeds to climb higher every year. Not all Ethernet cables are built the same though. They are separated into categories based on speed and bandwidth. Speed is measured in megabits or gigabits per second (Mbps or Gbps, respectively). Bandwidth is measured in megahertz (Mhz).

A green Ethernet cable and Ethernet cable covers against a red backdrop
The color of an Ethernet cable has nothing to do with the category. (Image: Shutterstock)

One way to differentiate data speed from bandwidth is by imagining an Ethernet cable as a hose. A faster Ethernet cable is like a hose with a high-pressure nozzle that shoots water rapidly, while a higher-bandwidth Ethernet cable is like a hose with a wider diameter that allows more water to pass through. When combining faster speeds with higher bandwidth, you get a cable that can transmit a larger volume of data at a faster rate.

Common Ethernet Cable Categories

Categories Speed Bandwidth Max distance
Cat 5 100 Mbps 100 Mhz 100 meters
Cat 5e 1 Gbps 100 Mhz 100 meters
Cat 6 1 to 10 Gbps 250 Mhz 100 meters
Cat 6a 10 Gbps 500 Mhz 100 meters
Cat 7 10 Gbps 600 Mhz 100 meters
Cat 7a 10 to 40 Gbps 1,000 Mhz 100 meters
Cat 8 40 Gbps 2,000 Mhz 30 meters

Your local hardware or electronics store will carry Ethernet cables, but the selection may not be extensive. You can count on finding Cat 6 and possibly Cat 6a cables, but if you want Ethernet cables with a higher bandwidth rating, such as Cat 7 or above, it’s better to look at specialty websites.

Ethernet Cable Length Matters

You may have noticed the caveat beside Cat 6 Ethernet cables above. Cat 6 Ethernet cables are rated for 10 Gbps, but they can’t hold the same speed across the same distance as Cat 6a cables and higher. A Cat 6 cable’s 10 Gbps speed is reliable only at distances less than 55 meters. A Cat 6a cable, in comparison, can transmit data across 100 meters without losing speed. That makes Cat 6a cables more expensive, but the higher price comes with network reliability across longer distances. Cat 6a Ethernet cables are better for large spaces, but regular Cat 6 cables are affordable and work fine for smaller spaces like apartments.

An Ethernet crimp tool surrounded by Ethernet cable covers
This tool is used to place covers on cut Ethernet cables. (Image: Shutterstock)

Buying individual Ethernet cables is fine if you’re wiring a few devices, but making the cables yourself from a longer Ethernet cable may be more cost-effective. When comparing different-sized Ethernet cables from Best Buy, for example, longer cables cost much less per foot than shorter ones. A 10-foot cable costs about $0.70 per foot, while a 150-foot cable costs as little as $0.17 per foot. You’ll need a crimp tool and Ethernet cable covers, but the cost will likely remain lower than purchasing multiple cables.

Wi-Fi vs. Ethernet

Wired connections are unmatched in speed. If you’re a gamer, a wired connection will result in quicker download times, and you won’t have to worry about high ping or an inconsistent network connection. Spotty wireless connections are frowned upon in fighting games and other online multiplayer games where lag can ruin the experience for both parties. Unlike wireless connections that can falter as they travel through obstacles, wired connections remain steady.

Gamers aren’t the only ones who benefit from a wired connection. A wired connection will ensure speed and stability across the board if you work from home, stream TV, or create content. A wireless connection is more convenient and still has its uses for devices such as phones, tablets, and smart appliances, but a wired connection will always be faster and undoubtedly more reliable.