There are actually 3 types of telecom cable worth mentioning when it comes to residential data infrastructure. Coax, specialized types of Ethernet, and fiber.
- Coax is used for Cable and Satellite TV distribution, as well as cable internet service, and more recently MOCA protocol data adapters.
- Ethernet is the bread and butter of data networking, from data centers to homes. It comes it all sorts of varieties, each with a purpose. It’s run to service client devices and wireless infrastructure.
- Fiber is basically a flexible pipe you can bounce light down for extremely long distances. It’s also capable of extreme bandwidth, as it’s not limited by it’s own physical characteristics so much as the equipment on both ends of the pipe firing lasers at each-other. In residential deployments it’s reserved for running data to outbuildings, extension networking racks, away from the main one and sometimes for specialized applications, like linking theatre room rack, or maybe a VR room or some other high bandwidth pursuit nobody has thought of yet.
For planning purposes, you can estimate 100ft per run in a home and get a ballpark figure of what you need, or do some measurements with the plans to get a better idea in your particular case. The more tightly packed a home and centralized the wiring, the better, obviously. A 3 wing ‘U’ shaped home built around a courtyard is probably going to be much long on average than your standard suburban home, since every run is going to have to run a long way.
Coax for Cable TV and Conservative Planning
Coax is, in a technical sense, obsolete. Given a clean slate and access to all the internationally certified cable specifications nobody would deploy coax for data networks. When the first country in Africa attains a modern economy and status, they won’t use coax for data, aside from antenna feeds when they build out their country. It does have a certain legacy appeal and deployment inertia in certain places like the US though. If you were to put a home on the market in the United States without coax in the walls, that’s probably a strike against it in buyers’ eyes today.
In other countries, I understand coax mostly never saw widespread use, so this is a moot point. For North America though, if you are looking at eventual resale, coax is a feature to have. Maybe not in 50 years, but certainly in the next 10-15. Technology tends to stick around forever. People on DSL today have internet provided by literally 90 year old wire in some cases.
It can be run in a daisy chain fashion, but in a new deployment I recommend running it in a star pattern, just like Ethernet. That way, if MOCA is ever used, you have the setup to maximize bandwidth for each leg of the network. In theory someone could make a MOCA based Switch that worked like an Ethernet switch, and something like a poor man’s gigabit ethernet could be made possible. It would be slightly inferior in every way, but still way ahead of wireless in terms of reliablity, bandwidth, and extendability.
It probably will happen too, given the 90’s-00’s housing boom. Lots of homes have Star pattern Coax and no Ethernet. Older homes with daisy chained coax will have a sort of shared bandwidth with slightly worse latency experience among all the nodes connected, but still be a pretty good option if WiFi doesn’t work well.
You can get extremely fancy and get 12ghz rated, 4K+ carrying, broadcast grade Belden 4694R cable, at a princely $850ish a 1000ft spool. The person living in your house in 50 years will thank you if coax persists that long. This isn’t worth it though to most people. Even If you had the money to drop buying high end coax, there are better ways to spend it on home data infrastructure.
Don’t buy $850 dollar coax spools, please. Even if it’s meant to be an ostentatious display of wealth, MTV Cribs style. It’s gonna be buried in a wall, so nobody is gonna see it, and even if they did, you can probably fit the number of people in your state who would notice or care in a room, and probably a small one.
If you wanted to get something of impeccable quality, but not excessively extravagant, Belden 1694a is standard in the business world. If this is your forever home and you want to pass down the property to family, this might be appropriate. At approximately $500ish for 1000ft spool, it is pricey, but will probably hold up to future cable boxes, if they are still a thing.
If you don’t much care about coax cable, but still want it there for resale purposes, get this Quad-shielded RG6 from hyperline. $75ish a 1000ft spool. It’s cheap and by specification is “the good stuff”. It just doesn’t have a super reputable brand name like Belden that we know will deliver quality results for decades. That’s why Belden gets to charge the big bucks, and businesses and governments are willing to pay for it. Buy two rolls and put it absolutely everywhere.
Run all the coax drops back to a Structured Media Enclosure. near the MPOE for the house, or the wiring closet, depending on preference.
Ethernet, king of data cables
Ethernet is the global standard for network equipment in Local Area Networks (LAN). Fiber is a better performer, but has handling issues and is extremely difficult to terminate by comparison. Plus you typically need to convert back to Ethernet for devices on at least one end anyway. And you definitely need a media converter at both ends.
Ethernet is easy to use copper wiring, that anyone with 10 minutes of training from a youtube video and some cheap hand tools can terminate, into some cheap plastic jacks. It’s far less complex than fiber in terms of deployment and usability, thus it’s ubiquity in the field. It’s cheaper and performs to levels most people don’t push up against yet, even older cabling. Some Commscope cabling from 1992 is capable of gigabit speeds in the field today. Quality new cabling is good to 10 gigabit or more.
Modern Ethernet is a choice between CAT6 and CAT6a, or to use some cat5e specced 22awg cabling for PoE applications. It’s all about the right tool for the right job.
While normal CAT5e is basically obsolete for new builds, the 22awg variety is thicker copper wire so it presents less resistance, and therefore energy lost to heat generation, when you run power down it. This makes it great for PoE applications you know won’t ever call for crazy high-end bandwidth like home automation devices.
I use it for PoE Cameras & lighting, Doorbells, thermostats, and other locations pre-wired for home automation stuff. as it will pay for itself over time in energy savings, and allow you to power more hungry devices down the road. PoE standards keep trying to up the power the system can carry over low voltage lines. 22awg wiring gives you a huge margin over standard 23awg CAT6.
But CAT6 is better than CAT5E right? Why use the old stuff?
Power savings basically, and the fact it’s not going to matter for the applications you use it for. Lights and sensors barely send any data. Smart home devices, same thing. You won’t wire the office or home theater with it.
Cameras are going to be the most bandwidth intensive application most likely, and 1 gigabit/sec let alone 10 gigabit is enough for an extremely crazy future camera emplacement.
If future you were to buy a hypothetical 16.4 megapixel security cameras recording at 120 frames per second, it would use a little over 100 mbps, or about a 10th of 1 gigabit connection. Crank that up to 240fps, matching the highest slow-mo setting on an iPhone in terms of frame rate, and you are only at a fifth of a gigabit connection. Now we say that you wanted to cram 3 of these sensors on to a 180 degree camera offering. Now it’s taking up about 60% of the connection. That’s THREE streams of over 4K resolution in ultra slowmo, and it still won’t max out a 1 gigabit connection.
An 8K (16x the pixels of 4K) stream at 120 frames would just about max out the connection. This implies a camera matching the sophistication of one NHK will use to film the 2020 Tokyo Olympics… looking out on your driveway, porch, or side yard.
Then we have a reasonable chance of hitting 10 gigabit if the run of quality cat5e is under 55 meters or so. Which most residential runs will qualify for. Basically, you won’t ever need to worry about the rating of these cables. Get the thick stuff for the energy benefits, save the CAT6 for data drops. Speaking of data drops:
CAT6 vs CAT6a
Your ideal goal is to get 10 gigabit capable wiring in place everywhere it matters. Context of the project will determine what you might need to do.
One of these is going to be your go to for wiring the house for generic data drops. A place an access point or Desktop/laptop might plug in. CAT6 is the standard option, and is the less expensive option. CAT6a is guaranteed for 10 gigbit at 100 meters, which is a full length certification, but CAT6 will do 10 gigabit at 30-50 meters reliably, which may be enough for your project.
CAT6a is harder to run correctly, requires nicer (and way more expensive) jacks to terminate correctly, plus the cabling itself is more expensive. Done correctly, it will deliver a superior performance, but neither option is going to get you anywhere close to 100 gb/sec, which would be the next step up in the logical progression.
Therefore, as long as you are confident you can get 10 gigabit performance out of whatever you use, it will be just fine. A run of CAT6a where CAT6 would have negotiated at 10 gigabit/sec is basically a waste in terms of data.
CAT6a does tend to have better thermal properties, and demands 23awg in it’s specifications, while CAT6 can in theory be 24awg and be in spec. Thus on paper CAT6a seems to be the smarter choice in terms of PoE compatibility, but you can get CAT6 in 23awg with good thermal characteristics too, depending on the manufacturer…it’s just not required to meet the less stringent specification.
By default I run normal CAT6. It’s more forgiving, cheaper, and will probably get you the results you wanted from CAT6a anyway. If you really want to guarantee a future high speed link, you should turn to fiber.
Cabling Meant for Structured Wiring
The other detail you have to get right when ordering cable is to get the stuff meant to go in the wall, and not the stuff used to make patch cables. The in-wall cabling uses solid wiring, while patch cables are stranded to be more flexible, which is needed in a patch cable but worse for transmission. Since structured wiring doesn’t move much at all, you want it to be solid cabling. The industry slang term for this is “horizontal” cable, but when you buy it online you are looking for is “Solid vs Stranded”. You want solid cable for running in the wall.
Fiber in a Residential Network
To be clear, this isn’t about Fiber to the Home (FTTH), this is about using fiber in a local area network. Fiber, being a path to bounce laser light down, is basically always ready to be upgraded in terms of speed. Upgrade the devices at both ends and your fiber is faster, just like that. Every single ultra high speed bandwidth connection on earth is done this way.
Copper cable’s various grades and quality are a result of being electromagnetically sensitive. Fiber is light based, so extremely insensitive to interference, as well as non conductive. This makes it the best option for most outdoor runs between structures. A nearby lightning strike won’t toast the delicate electronics on the network.
In a residential project it is most commonly used for:
- Extending a network to a coach house, guest house, pool house or other type of outbuilding.
- Extending a network to another wiring rack/closet
- Runs 100m or longer
If you project has any longer distance runs or outbuildings to consider, fiber probably makes sense for you project right away. If your project doesn’t have these concerns, it typically doesn’t make sense to pre-run fiber. If you are worried about future proofing, it makes more sense to think about running conduit or smurf tube between your key runs to ensure you can run whatever you want later.
Multi-mode vs Single mode
This is the only thing you need to know when deciding on a type of fiber run. You basically will always choose multi-mode fiber. It’s cheaper and it’s disadvantages start to show after approximately 4ish kilometers. If you have to worry about runs longer than that, you aren’t really a home anymore. A family farm maybe? If you need more than 4 km runs, by all means, look at single mode fiber instead. I am assuming that the average person won’t need anything close to that sort of run distance, and thus Multi-mode is completely fine to reach the detached garage or guest house.
If you need a fiber run, the best way to get that done is to measure and get a custom fiber cable made and shipped to you off the internet. that way the terminations are done in a factory setting and you just have to be a little careful during deployment. No fancy $5000 fiber splicer and technical education necessary. Ask them to add compatible media converters to the order as well.
Conduit or Smurf Tube
Nobody can predict the future perfectly. I think I do a pretty good job of being realistic about my assumptions and predictions about the future, but if you really want to hedge your bets, running a tube you can run anything you want in after the walls are up is the absolute best option.
Metal conduit has the advantage of also being an additional layer of EM protection, but most people opt to use “smurf tube” which is a plastic based low voltage raceway system. Smurf tube saves on labor, as you don’t need to bend and measure pipe. It is/was prototypically blue, and thus the trade slang “smurf tube”. These days lots of it is orange though.
You can go as far as to do the whole home with it, but I think it’s more effective to use it for key runs. to the media center, to the master bedroom. Basement to the attic with a stop at each floor in-between. From the MPOE to the wiring closet/rack. Those sorts of things. It’s all about striking a balance of utility gained and resources spent on it.
If I were building a standard suburban house with no special considerations, the Quintessential suburban home for myself today…
I would focus mostly on Ethernet since it’s going to deliver the performance I need and give the future flexibility I want.
- I would get some cheap Quad-shielded RG6 coax and run a drop to every room, and more than one in rooms with more than one option in terms of walls to put a TV on, especially the living room and master suite.
- I would get 22AWG CAT5e for camera, PoE lighting, and home automation device drops
- I would get CAT6, Solid not stranded, 23awg cabling from a reputable manufacturer for data drops
- I would run smurf tube from the MPOE to the networking closet, and from the closet to anywhere it made sense to enable an easy cheap retrofit later, like the main TV viewing areas, from the basement to the attic, etc.