What is Ethernet and is it better than Wi-Fi?

Ethernet is the common standard for wired connections to computer networks. Devices that use an Ethernet connection use a specific type of twisted electrical cable to connect to, send and receive data with other network devices, and access wider networks such as the Internet.

Using an Ethernet connection, you can connect two devices together or create a local network with multiple devices. These require a router or switch device to allow the connected devices to communicate with each other. Let’s explore the Ethernet standard a little further, comparing and contrasting it with Wi-Fi.

Different Ethernet Standards

What is Ethernet? The Ethernet standard has evolved to meet the changing demands of modern computer networks since it was first developed in the 1980s. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers produces these standards, under the umbrella reference of IEEE 802.3.

Every new Ethernet standard, be it a minor or major change, is given a new incremental code reference to identify it. For example, one of the more recent standard releases, 802.3bt, was about increasing the power available to Power-over-Ethernet devices over Ethernet connections.

This is also reflected in the type of cabling you need for an Ethernet network. For example, Cat-5 Ethernet cabling only allows connections up to speeds of 100Mbits (megabits), while Cat-6 cabling supports up to 10Gbits (gigabits).

Different Ethernet cables are backward compatible, meaning they should work with each other. However, networks that use a combination of Ethernet cable standards can only send and receive data at the upper end of the lowest-rated cable.

This also applies to almost all variants of Ethernet standards. Devices that use the Fast Ethernet standard (capable of speeds of 100 Mbits) will generally connect to devices that use, for example, the Gigabit (1 Gbits and above) Ethernet standard.

Ethernet vs. Wi-Fi

As the name suggests, wireless (or WiFi) connections provide a wireless alternative to wired Ethernet connections. Both methods offer their own distinct advantages and disadvantages over the others.

Ethernet generally has a speed advantage over Wi-Fi connections, with maximum available speeds from 10 Mbits (megabits) to 100Gbits (gigabits). Typical Wi-Fi networks are much slower, with the added drawback that interference from other radio signals and obstacles reduces the speed and quality of any wireless network.

In the context of Wi-Fi, obstacles are physical: walls and other objects can block or degrade Wi-Fi signals between a device and a network router. By design, this is not a problem for wired Ethernet connections, assuming you have the space to run Ethernet cabling. While it is possible to boost Wi-Fi signals, an Ethernet connection completely solves the problem.

Security is also an issue for Wi-Fi networks. WiFi networks can be breached much more easily than an Ethernet-only network, where you would need physical access to be able to breach the network. You can secure your Wi-Fi to reduce this risk, although you can’t eliminate it completely.

However, there is one major drawback to Ethernet versus WiFi. Wireless connectivity to networks has made mobile devices a practical option in recent 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 smaller, mobile devices. This applies to networks in the home, as well as those in a business environment.

Ethernet Restrictions

There are some limitations to the Ethernet standard that should be recognized, especially if you want to build a network using Ethernet cabling.

As we mentioned briefly, Ethernet is not always the most practical solution. Portable devices such as laptops in some cases provide Ethernet connectivity to enable wired networking, but they must have the infrastructure in place to run them.

That means cables are hidden from view by walls and other physical obstacles. If this cabling becomes damaged or distorted due to poor installation, the network connection will fail.

The same thing can happen if an Ethernet cable is poorly shielded from electromagnetic interference, especially in cheaper cabling and older Cat-5 cables. Using higher rated cabling, including Cat-6 cables, can help resolve this issue.

One of the biggest limitations, however, is the cable length. The longer an Ethernet cable is, the slower it gets and the greater the amount of interference it experiences. Therefore, the maximum allowable length for certified Ethernet cables is 100 meters.

Longer cables could theoretically work, but connection quality will likely suffer.

Alternative Uses to Ethernet

Ethernet cabling is quite flexible and can be used for purposes other than just sending and receiving data.

One use 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 while receiving power over a single cable.

Power over Ethernet (PoE) connections usually require additional equipment, such as a PoE-compatible network switch.

Another potential use for Ethernet, especially in media setups, is HDMI over Ethernet. Although a special converter is usually required, HDMI over Ethernet can greatly increase the distance between a media player and an output device such as a TV, where typical HDMI cables are otherwise limited to about 15 meters.

Finally, the USB cabling can be extended with a USB to Ethernet converter. Since the USB cable limit is about 3 to 5 meters, this is another way to connect devices (such as a USB camera) over a greater distance where typical connectivity is impractical or impossible.

Ethernet: still relevant

Ethernet is still the backbone of modern local and wide area networks and remains the fastest and most reliable method of communicating between devices on computer networks. It can also be used to extend the range of other output devices, such as HDMI, and to power devices that use Power over Ethernet.

If you want to connect your devices over a wired connection, but don’t have the space or capacity to run Ethernet cabling, consider using Ethernet devices with powerline adapters instead.

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