Ethernet is a common standard for wired connections to computer networks. Devices using an Ethernet connection use a special type of coiled electrical cable to connect, send and receive data with other network devices, and to access wider networks such as the Internet.
Using an Ethernet connection, you can connect two devices together or create a local area network with multiple devices. This requires a router or switch to enable connected devices to communicate with each other. Let’s take the Ethernet standard a little further, and also compare it to WiFi.
Ethernet standards are different
What is Ethernet? The Ethernet standard has evolved to meet the changing demands of today’s computer networks since it was first developed in the 1980s. These standards are developed by the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers under the auspices of IEEE 802.3.
Every new Ethernet standard, whether minor or major change, receives a new additional code link to identify it. One of the more recent releases of the standard, 802.3bt, addresses, for example, increasing the output power available to Power-over-Ethernet devices over Ethernet connections.
This also affects the type of cables you need to use for your Ethernet network. For example, Cat-5 Ethernet cables only accept connections up to 100 Mbps (megabits), while Cat-6 cables support speeds up to 10 Gbps (Gigabits).
The various Ethernet cables are backward compatible, which means they have to work with each other. However, networks using a mix of Ethernet cabling standards will only be able to transmit and receive data over the upper limit of the lowest rated cable.
This is also true for almost all flavors of Ethernet standards. Devices using the Fast Ethernet standard (100 Mbps) will usually connect to devices using, for example, the Gigabit standard (1 Gbps and higher).
Ethernet vs Wi-Fi
As the name suggests, wireless (or WiFi) connections offer a wireless alternative to wired Ethernet connections. Both methods have advantages and disadvantages over the other.
Ethernet usually has a speed advantage over Wi-Fi connections, with top speeds available from 10 Mbps (megabits) to 100 Gbps (gigabits). Typical Wi-Fi networks are much slower, and added to this is interference from other radio signals and obstacles that reduce the speed and quality of any wireless network.
In a WiFi context, obstacles are physical in nature: walls and other objects can block or impair the transmission of WiFi signals between the device and the network router. By design, this is not a problem for wired Ethernet connections as long as you have room to route Ethernet cables. While it is possible to boost the WiFi signal, connecting to an Ethernet network completely solves the problem.
Security is also a concern for Wi-Fi networks. Wi-Fi networks can be hacked much more easily than Ethernet-only networks, where you need physical access to be able to hack the network. You can protect your Wi-Fi to reduce this risk, although it cannot be completely eliminated.
However, Ethernet has one huge disadvantage compared to WiFi. Wireless connectivity has allowed mobile devices to become a practical opportunity over the past few decades, trading speed and security for portability and size.
The best networks are those that use a combination of Ethernet connections for static devices like PCs and servers, and secure Wi-Fi connections for small mobile devices. This applies to both home and business networks.
The Ethernet standard has some limitations to consider, especially if you want to build a network using Ethernet cables.
As we briefly mentioned, Ethernet is not always the most practical solution. Portable devices such as laptops in some cases offer Ethernet connectivity to provide a wired network, but this requires the infrastructure to be used.
This means cables are routed hidden from view through walls and other physical obstacles. If this cable is damaged or deformed due to improper installation, the network connection will not be established.
The same can happen if the Ethernet cable is poorly shielded from EMI, especially in cheaper cables and older Cat-5 cables. Using higher rated cables, including Cat-6 cables, can help solve this problem.
However, one of the biggest limitations is the cable length. The longer the Ethernet cable is, the slower it becomes and the more interference occurs. This is why the maximum permitted length of certified Ethernet cables is 100 meters.
In theory, longer cables can work, but the result can be degraded communication quality.
Alternative Uses for Ethernet
Ethernet cables are quite flexible and can be used not only for sending and receiving data, but for other purposes as well.
One use case is to provide power to certain types of devices, such as Voice over IP (VOIP) phones and IP cameras, using Power over Ethernet (PoE). This allows you to send and receive data as well as receive power over a single cable.
A Power over Ethernet (PoE) connection usually requires additional hardware, such as a PoE-capable network switch.
Another potential use for Ethernet, especially when setting up multimedia, is HDMI over Ethernet. Although a dedicated converter is usually required, HDMI over Ethernet can dramatically increase the distance between a media player and an output device such as a TV, where conventional HDMI cables are otherwise limited to about 15 meters.
Finally, the USB cable can be expanded with a USB-to-Ethernet converter. Considering that the length of the USB cable is 3 to 5 meters, this is another way of connecting devices (for example, USB cameras) over long distances, where normal connection is impractical or impossible.
Ethernet: still relevant
Ethernet is still the backbone of modern local and wide area networks, remaining the fastest and most reliable way of communication between devices on computer networks. It can also be used to expand the range of other output devices such as HDMI, and to provide power to devices using Power over Ethernet.
If you want to connect your devices using a wired connection but don’t have the space or capacity to run an Ethernet cable, you might want to consider using Ethernet devices with Powerline adapters instead.