Jun 15 2023

CAT 6 and CAT 6A Cabling for the Transition to Wi-Fi 6 in Higher Education

As colleges and universities roll out Wi-Fi 6 on their campuses, they must decide whether to upgrade their cabling from CAT 5 to CAT 6 or 6A.

If there’s any place that can take advantage of the higher speeds and increased frequencies that Wi-Fi 6 provides, it’s a college campus. Thousands of students need reliable Wi-Fi to take notes and study or to kick back with video games or Netflix. Meanwhile, researchers and professors use wireless for devices such as test equipment and drones, and the athletic department uses tablets during practices and games. This means a lot of demand for high-speed wireless internet with rock-solid uptime.

That’s why the University of Michigan is upgrading more than 15,000 access points to either Wi-Fi 6 or 6E on both the main Ann Arbor campus and a satellite campus in Dearborn.

“People have really high expectations for what it is that they will be able to do. We had a fairly consistent Wi-Fi system across our campus, but it was getting old, and we were beginning to run out run out of capacity in a number of areas,” says Andrew Palms, the university’s executive director of IT infrastructure.

One of the questions U-M had to answer was what to do about the campuses’ cabling infrastructure. Having wired the buildings with CAT 5 and 5E cabling about two decades ago, the university had to figure out where and when to upgrade cabling to CAT 6 and 6A.

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Why Universities Need CAT 6 Cabling for Wi-Fi 6

It’s a dilemma that all enterprise-level companies and organizations are contemplating right now, given the costs and planning involved in deploying new cabling. However, the advantages to deploying CAT 6 and 6A warrant that consideration.

Wi-Fi 6 has a theoretical maximum speed of 9.6 gigabits per second, CAT 6/6A, with its ability to handle network speeds of up to 10Gbps, is a way for universities to ensure cabling infrastructure is ready for the increased bandwidth demand that’s sure to happen in the coming years. CAT 5E can theoretically handle up to 1Gbps, which is more than most applications need now, but with more potential for cross-talk than CAT 6/6A.

“If you think about the requirements of Wi-Fi 6, the two high-level design factors are really around Power over Ethernet and performance,” says William Choe, vice president of product management for HPE Aruba Networking, who works with corporations and universities to plan and deploy infrastructure upgrades.

“As enterprises go to Wi-Fi 6E, the real breaking point is around 5Gbps,” he says. “Although CAT 5E is supposed to work, the distance and the temperature and even the cable gauge have an impact on reliability, often what we call the signal-to-noise ratio. There are all of these environmental factors that impact the quality of the signal and ultimately the ability to reliably provide that 5Gbps of performance.”

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What’s the Difference Between CAT 6 and CAT 6A Cabling?

Distance is an important factor, especially when it comes to the deployment of CAT 6A. While CAT 6 can maintain 10Gpbs speeds up to 55 meters, CAT 6A can maintain 10 Gbps speeds for up to 100 meters, along with less cross-talk and signal loss, due to thicker insulation and the wires being wound more tightly. It’s a bit stiffer than CAT 5E or CAT 6, making it a bit harder to deploy, especially through the already jam-packed conduits some campus infrastructures have.

The University of Michigan doesn’t have that issue, according to Palms.

“We don’t have a whole lot of places left that have anything less than a cable tray and/or 1-inch conduits,” he says. “So, we can pretty much put whatever cable is needed in any location.”

Power over Ethernet is a big reason why campuses and enterprises upgrade from CAT 5 or 5E to CAT 6 or 6A, even if the older cable can still handle their speed requirements. “What’s happening is that you have these IP cameras that have pan, tilt and zoom capabilities, you have smart lighting capabilities, you have various Internet of Things devices that are pushing the envelope around Power over Ethernet greater than 60 watts,” says Choe.

Due to the cost of deploying CAT 6A, even large enterprises and universities the size of U-M need to think about where they deploy the new cabling. For the time being, according to Palms, CAT 6A is being deployed widely in new construction only; the access points in those areas have dual CAT 6A cables connected to them. Elsewhere, CAT 5E cable is being replaced with CAT 6A when performance issues show a need for change.

For example, “you have a large auditorium, particularly in places where faculty will be asking students to do something that requires a lot of bandwidth,” he says. “Those are places where we have 6A for the access points.”

But Palms and his department have seen an issue in the patch panels where they connect their CAT 6A cable.

“The patch panels are just at the limit of the amount of power that’s being pushed through,” he says. “We had a few of the patch panels that were effectively shorting out.”

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When Should a University Update Its Cabling?

When it comes to cabling, Palms and others in his position face an age-old IT decision: keep the status quo and risk hitting technical limits or do a wholesale upgrade and risk underutilization. While Choe thinks CAT 5 or 5E is adequate for most enterprises’ needs right now, a wait-and-see deployment plan can have unintended consequences.

“It becomes operationally challenging to have disparate or differentiated capabilities in a given location,” he says. “You want to have that uniform because if you start to have applications that work well in one building versus another, you can start to create a bit of angst right within your customer community.”

He and Aruba are working with an Ivy League school that’s doing a two-year cable infrastructure upgrade, initially targeting the buildings that have the greatest need for CAT 6A’s capacity.

DIG DEEPER: How to solve higher education’s storage challenge.

Choe does see a point in the near future where universities and other enterprises will have to do a wholesale upgrade of their cables instead of doing it on an as-needed basis.

“If you have the enterprise, and your constituents are looking to future-proof and they have bigger data or speed requirements or bigger power requirements, that’s where CAT 6A really does make sense,” he says.

Getty Images: busracavus (puzzle), Olga Ubirailo (line), Kirshal (cable), Moon Safari (student)

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