2017 marked the ten year anniversary of the ratification of the Category 6A standard. At the time of its introduction, the industry hailed Category 6A cable as the future-proof standard for supporting 10GBase-T. However Category 6A has only taken off within the last few years, growing 20%+ annually. There are many reasons adoption took so long.
In 2007 the demand for 10GBase-T in data centers was clear, but there was little understanding of how that capacity would translate to enterprise applications. There were no standards recommending 6A specification prior to 2012’s TIA-1169 standard for healthcare networks and 2014’s TIA-4496 standard for higher education. In addition, the technological landscape was completely different in 2007. The iPhone was just introduced, TVs were not smart, Netflix had just started streaming movies, and tablet computers were still three years from entering the market. Was Category 6A ahead of its time? Yes, but it had to be.
Ratification of the Category 6A standard paved the way for manufacturers, integrators and customers to understand 6A’s place, network designs to implement it and the development of active components to support it. After 11 years of anticipation, the future is now — at least until Category 8 and 40GBaseT take off.
What did it take for 6A to finally stick?
Early Markets for Category 6A
Data Centers: As 10GBase-T network equipment became commonplace from 2012-14, data centers quickly became the broadest adopters of 6A.
Healthcare: Medical facilities supporting critical applications were among the first to leverage the crosstalk performance capacity, speed and stability of 6A. In addition, the healthcare industry required high-speed transmission for multi-layered files and dimensional image renderings.
Higher Education: In order to attract students and support large populations active on mobile devices and hungry for on-demand content, the Higher Education segment was also an early adopter of 6A. Category 6A cable provided the performance necessary for modern computer labs, ubiquitous Wi-Fi, and connected dorms.
New and Improved Products
Another contributing factor to growth and adoption was the creation of new and improved products and accessories supporting Category 6A cable, as well as improvements to the cable itself, including: :
- 6A varieties with smaller outside dimensions (OD) and less weight which might have initially deterred contractors hoping to avoid heavier cable boxes
- Better termination tools that can tackle 6A’s tightly-wound pairs
- Transmission technologies to support 10GBase-T
- Innovative chip designs that reduced heat and power consumption in data centers
- 60-watt Power over Ethernet (PoE) devices needing higher data capacities
Category Cabling Stands the Test of Time
Although fiber LANs and Passive Optical Networks have real benefits, the install base, labor availability and innovations on copper cabling have been tough to compete with. But wireless isn’t going to doom copper cabling — it takes a lot of wire to support wireless. Cables to the desk may be disappearing, but the number of connected things converging on aggregation points is exploding. That means wires are not going away, just changing location.
Enterprise aggregation points that support 5 and 10GBase-T is a lot of capacity even for today’s digital demand. 40GBase-T may be a tipping point for copper, but manufacturers have continued to respond with innovations.
Wi-Fi traffic has exploded thanks to mobile devices, increased aggregation, and demand for higher-capacity access points. Now at 802.11ac, 2019 will usher in 802.11ax, increasing capacity and driving more demand for Category 6A cable in enterprise environments.
Software as a Service (SaaS), partly driven by slim mobile devices that require processing at their core, have decreased on-premises computing while increasing network traffic. Now everything from games to business applications are flowing throughout the network. We aren’t just browsing the Internet over the Wi-Fi. We are streaming 4K resolution movies, video conferencing, augmenting cell phone calls, and transferring files.
While the individual load is small, overall volume is high and the demand for ubiquity, availability and speed is increasing. When you are on an impossibly slow network, or even worse — cut off — everything stops. Everything that is, except for your clients, coworkers, friends, and family who are all expecting your reply.
After nearly 11 years, Category 6A is gaining traction. As technology and demand continue to expand, high-capacity solutions will spread from the core to the edge. The hype over new solutions can sometimes make it seem like spring will never come. In the case of Category 6A cable, spring is here and the market is getting hot.