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What Is Ethernet?

Multiple ethernet cables connected to a switch

When it comes to dealing with Internet device connections and networks, most of us have at least heard of the technological terminology involved. USB cables, WiFi, routers, and ethernet connections are used by everyone — even when we don’t necessarily understand how they work. 

When discerning what connections will work best for your needs, you need a working knowledge of these terms. What are some of the most common computer network types? What, exactly, is ethernet? Is it the best mode to connect your network? Let’s take a look.  

Common network types

When you’re setting up a computer network, your mode of connection can be broken down into common network types. For some of these networks, an ethernet connection works best. For others, a WiFi connection may be your wisest option. The most common networks utilized include:

Personal Area Network (PAN)

PANs are used by individuals with a single computer, and in need of a single connection. PANs may include network devices such as printers and smartphones.

Local Area Network (LAN)

A small business most likely utilizes a LAN. They are called “local” because they connect computers within short proximity. LANs use routers and physical cables to connect devices, and shared data is accessible to all computers in a LAN. LANs use ethernet connections.

Enterprise Private Network (EPN)

EPNs are often used by businesses with multiple locations. They allow secure systems access to shared data. For example, if you work remotely, or, your company has offices in Chicago and London, you’re probably on an EPN.

Metropolitan Area Network (MAN)

MANs cover areas such as municipalities, cities, and campuses. Government agencies often use MANs, and connect computers and other devices through ethernet.

Virtual Private Network (VPN)

Virtual private networks, or VPNs, are in place to allow users secure and anonymous access to the Internet. VPNs act as remote private networks accessed by virtual connections.

Wide Area Network (WAN)

A Wide Area Network, or WAN, is similar to a LAN, but allows network connections over greater distances. For example, a bank may use a WAN for its ATMs, branches, and online banking apps. WANs also often use ethernet systems to connect computers. 

What is ethernet?

Ethernet is a wired connection that links computers in a LAN, MAN, or WAN network. It prohibits two or more systems from transmitting data at the same time and keeps smaller networks secure.

In simpler terms, if you plug your computer, printer, or smart device into a grounded ethernet connection, you can immediately join your local area network. 

Your ethernet connection allows for a quick transmission of data. Ethernet cables are either coaxial or fiber and can transmit data for individual residences, small to medium businesses, or even small towns.

Ethernet hardware components

Required ethernet hardware components are minimal and relatively inexpensive. Most computers have ethernet capabilities pre-installed, so you won’t have to worry about purchasing most of these components anyway.

The components required to utilize ethernet network connections are:

  • Ethernet-adapted computer chip: Pre-installed in most laptops and PCs, directly connects your operating system to a modem or a router. 
  • Coaxial or fiber ethernet cable: You can purchase these cables at any tk store, or online merchandise hub like Walmart and Amazon. They usually run from $.06 to $4.60 per square foot.
  • Ethernet port: Ethernet ports look similar to the old school landline telephone ports. Your laptop or PC should have an ethernet port located near your USB port. Your ethernet network cable should attach to this port, and the other end goes into your router.
  • Router: If you aren’t using WiFi at all, you’ll have to purchase your own router. This is the most expensive ethernet component, and could cost you in the range of $35 to $500 at Best Buy and other tech stores. (Most Internet service providers include a rented router in your contract).
  • Ethernet protocol: Ethernet protocol is a LANs technology that your system must have in order to use ethernet connections properly. The ethernet protocol impacts how quickly your data is transmitted and acts as the gateway for WANs and Internet access as well.
A side by side photo of an ethernet switch and a wifi router

What are the different types of ethernet cables?

Ethernet cables can vary in size and come with different levels of bandwidth and length. You should choose which cables you use based on your needs and the configuration of your ethernet setup. 

For example, at home, you may need a lengthier cable with a wider bandwidth than you will need in a small office environment. If you have a fast internet speed, you’ll want to use a newer cable that can support this connection. However, a slower internet speed may call for an older cable with less bandwidth.

Types of ethernet cables

  • Cat5: Category 5 or “Cat5” cables indicate that the cable supports a slower internet connection speed and a smaller distance between your device and ethernet connection. Cat5 ethernet cables are twisted conductors built for speeds of 10-100Mbps and were heavily utilized from the 1990s through 2000.
  • Cat5e: Cat5e cables look identical to Cat5 cables, but were built to prevent “crosstalk” communication channel signal transfers. Cat5e cables are mass-produced, available at most electronic stores, and have been available since 2000. 
  • Cat6: Cat6 ethernet cables support higher connection speeds, are more tightly wound than Cat5 cables, and have extra protection via foil or braided connection. These cables tend to be more costly than their low-speed counterparts, but can support an ethernet connection of 10Gbps up to 180 feet.
  • Cat6a: Augmented Category 6 cables (Cat6a) can support double the bandwidth of Cat6 cables. These cables are copper-based, heavy, thick, and flat, and have enhanced performance capabilities from their predecessors.
  • Cat7: Category 7 cables (also known as Class F cables) support a bandwidth of 1-600 mHz over 328 feet of ethernet connection. These cables are constructed of intertwined pairs, are completely shielded, and completely erase crosstalk ethernet issues. However, the standards and specifications used to create these cables makes them difficult to purchase as they are not mass-produced.

The difference between WiFi and ethernet  

Other than wireless versus wired connection, are there any obvious differences between a WiFi network and ethernet? The short answer is yes. WiFi and ethernet offer different benefits that are vital to understand before you choose which to use.

The benefits of WiFi and ethernet connections

WiFi offers greater mobility for users, as you can move from room to room to use it. You can also hop on other public and private WiFi networks and gain access to their respective connections. VPNs and mobile hotspots allow you to use public WiFi networks and still maintain a level of protection over your personal data.

On the other hand, ethernet connects offer faster online transmission of data and quicker connections than WiFi. An ethernet connection also offers greater security than WiFi, as one can only access network data if they’re physically connected to a local area or wide area network. Similarly, these connections don’t face the signal blocks that WiFi networks may struggle against.

Do you need a WiFi connection to use ethernet? 

Computers in an ethernet network can access shared data sans an Internet connection. Nonetheless, you’ll need access through a router in order to connect to the Internet. Since these connections need physical cables to become operative, WiFi isn’t necessary.

You can be connected via ethernet and WiFi simultaneously. However, leaving both networks open may decrease both the speed of your connection and transmission of data. You could also see an increase in network errors. 

What’s My IP Address has helpful technological information

Protecting yourself online can feel like an overwhelming, stressful task. If you can discern what systems to use and what privacy measures to take, it allows you to alleviate that stress. Even if you’re not a tech professional, a little knowledge can go a long way to provide a successful online experience.

At What’s My IP Address, we answer your questions, including “what is the ethernet and how does it work?” to help you make informed decisions. Find the best, fastest Internet connections for your personal and professional needs. Check out our extensive blog and our security tools to help protect yourself against online threats.

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