Copper Cable's Last Stand?

Global demand sent copper surging almost 40 percent since the beginning of 2010.

The March 2011 copper contract on the New York Mercantile Exchange rose 9 cents to a record close of U.S. 63 cents per pound, taking the base metals sector up 1.4 percent. High demand for the metal used in construction and electrical appliances has sent copper surging almost 40 percent since the beginning of 2010.

The strong showing in copper prices came amid data showing that China’s exports surged 37.7 percent in January, which was more than double December’s rate, in a sign of rebounding global demand. Import growth jumped 53.5 percent.

Also, the chief executive of mining giant Rio Tinto Group, Tom Albanese, told Australian television over the weekend that he expects copper prices will continue to head higher amid rising demand and before output from new projects eases a supply shortfall.
FEP is driving up cable prices more than copper. One of the main components in FEP is called fluorospar, and there has been a worldwide increase in demand and decrease in supply. As with any natural resource there is a finite supply.

Another component in the jacketing material is caustic soda; the caustic soda market has been weak, which had caused a decreased supply driving up demand. In addition to the component cost increases, last year one of the U.S.-based FEP producers decided to stop manufacturing this compound. That immediately drove up prices and reduced the supply. At this time, only two chemical companies (DuPont Teflon FEP and Daikin Neoflon FEP) produce FEP, and Daikin is having some post-earthquake problems with their plants in Japan. When exposed to heat, CMP cables may emit some gasses that are highly toxic and extremely corrosive. The NEC CMP rating does not require toxicity testing.

The U.S. dollar has taken a beating in the world economy. Due to the inflation of the U.S. dollar as compared to other world currencies, we are no longer able to source product at the same purchase price as before. Our buy price is increasing across the board and will continue to do so until we are able to slow down the inflation rate. This is affecting all out of country products for the entire United States.

Some industry experts have noted that the European Union cable requirement of LSZH RoHS may be the best move for the United States. Low smoke zero halogen cables that are free of hazardous materials, such as heavy metals, represent a significantly better safety profile for people and property. The NEC does not require RoHS. The cost of LSZH RoHS UTP CAT 6 cable is lower than the United States’ CMP UTP CAT 6 cable. Recently, CAT 6 CMP 4PR UTP plenum cable prices have been increased almost every two weeks (currently at approximately $290 per box).

In today’s unstable market, the smart electrical/cabling contractor is sticking with the reliable distributors to prevent getting stung with counterfeit products.

Progress will not be denied. If copper cable inventories (at any price) are exhausted and intervals are prohibitive, we expect the market will seek other media, probably fiber optic cable as the infrastructure main media.

What is the difference between CAT 3, CAT 5, CAT 5e, CAT 6, etc.?
This is actually a somewhat complex question to answer as it involves a number of technical details. The most basic answer is that each category of cable is supposed to meet (or exceed) a specific set of standards, the most significant of which, is the ability to pass all signals up to a particular carrier frequency (or signaling rate). Additional standards have to be met, including values for attenuation, near end cross talk (NEXT), ACR, etc.

Below is a table of the types of category cable we install. The table shows the Maximum Carrier Frequencies required by the EIA/TIA 568 Standards for each Category of cable and the Maximum Frequencies the manufacturer actually tests the cable.


Why do I need all the bandwidth of CAT 6?
Bandwidth precedes data rates just as highways come before traffic. Doubling the bandwidth is like adding twice the number of lanes on a highway. The trends of the past and the predictions for the future indicate that data rates have been doubling every 18 months. With additional throughput requirements right around the corner, it makes sense to plan ahead. Note: Bandwidth is defined as the highest frequency up to which positive power sum ACR (attenuation-to-crosstalk ratio) is greater than zero.


The barrier of obsolescence is the point where the functionality of copper based communications cabling can no longer deliver the required speeds of the network.

For many years the communications industry has guessed at the maximum effective speed of copper (UTP) cabling. Today many experts are in agreement that the need for speed is approaching copper's max. We must begin to look at hybrid designs that incorporate new technologies mixed with the traditional copper UTP. Shielded or coaxial cables deliver better speed and distance performance than UTP; however, distance is challenged by increased network speeds.

Network Cable
CAT 5 Cable (UTP) is a multipair (usually 4 pair) high performance cable that consists of twisted pair conductors, used mainly for data transmission. Note: The twisting of the pairs gives the cable a certain amount of immunity from the infiltration of unwanted interference. CAT 5 UTP cabling systems are, by far, the most common (compared to SCTP) in the United States. Basic CAT 5 cable was designed for characteristics of up to 100 MHz. CAT 5 cable is typically used for Ethernet networks running at 10 or 100 Mbps.

CAT 5e cable (enhanced) Same as CAT 5, except that it is made to somewhat more stringent standards (see comparison chart below). The CAT 5e standard is now officially part of the 568A standard. CAT 5e is recommended for all new installations and was designed for transmission speeds of up to 1 gigabit per second (gigabit Ethernet).

CAT 6 Cable is the same as CAT 5e, except it is made to a higher standard. The CAT 6 standard is now officially part of the 568A standard.

CAT 7 is the same as CAT 6, except it is made to a higher standard (see comparison chart below). The CAT 7 standard is still in the works being revised. One major difference with CAT 7's construction (as compared with CAT 5, 5e, 6 and 6a) is that all four pairs are individually shielded, and an overall shield enwraps all four pairs. CAT 7 will use an entirely new connector (other than the familiar RJ-45).

If we use a CAT 5e RJ45 connector and connect it to a CAT 6 UTP cable, will the installation be CAT 5e or CAT 6?
By definition (of the standard), it will be a CAT 5e channel. The actual performance will probably be somewhat better, but nowhere near CAT 6 requirements. Of course, you can set up a channel using any components and measure it using a CAT 6 (level III) compliant tester. If it passes, it is CAT 6 performance compliant. It would not be standards compliant, however, because the components have requirements in and of themselves to ensure interoperability with other CAT 6 components.

CAT 6 cabling recognizes advances in cabling technology and is designed to be backward compatible with Categories 3, 5 and 5e. This ensures that any applications that operate on lower category cabling will be fully supported by CAT 6 cabling. When different category components are mixed with CAT 6 components, the resultant cabling will satisfy the category transmission requirements of the lower performing component.

Is there a limitation on the size of bundles one can have with CAT 6? Can you have 200–300 and still pass CAT 6?
Maybe not. There is no limit imposed by the standards on the maximum number of CAT 6 cables in a bundle. This is a matter for the market and the industry to determine based on practical considerations. It should be pointed out that after six or eight cables, the performance in any cable will not change significantly since the cables will be too far away to add any additional external (or alien) NEXT.

What is the shortest link that the standard will allow?
There is no short length limit. The standard is intended to work for all lengths up to 100 meters. There is a guideline in ANSI/TIA/EIA-568-B.1 that states the consolidation point should be located at least 15 meters away from the telecommunications room to reduce the effect of connectors in close proximity. This recommendation is based upon worst-case performance calculations for short links with four mated connections in the channel.

Are the connectors for CAT 5e and CAT 6 different? Why are they more expensive?
Although CAT 6 and CAT 5e connectors may look alike, CAT 6 connectors have much better transmission performance. For example, at 100 MHz, NEXT of a CAT 5e connector is 43 decibels (dB), while NEXT of a CAT 6 connector is 54 dB. This means that a CAT 6 connector couples about 1/12 of the power that a CAT 5e connector couples from one pair to another pair. Conversely, one can say that a CAT 6 connector is 12 times less "noisy" compared to a CAT 5e connector. This vast improvement in performance was achieved with new technology, new processes, better materials and significant research and development resources, leading to higher costs for manufacturers.

Will contractors be able to make their own patch cords?
CAT 6 patch cords are precision products, just like the cables and the connectors. They are best manufactured and tested in a controlled environment to ensure consistent, reliable performance. This will ensure interoperability and backward compatibility. All this supports patch cords as a factory-assembled product rather than a field-assembled product.

Why wouldn’t I skip CAT 6 and go straight to optical fiber?
You can certainly do that, but you will find that a fiber system is still more expensive than copper. Ultimately, economics drive customer decisions, and today optical fiber together with optical transceivers was about twice as expensive as an equivalent system built using CAT 6 and associated copper electronics. Installation of copper cabling is almost craft-intensive as fiber. Copper cabling supports the data terminal equipment (DTE) power standard developed by IEEE (802.3af). PCs ship with copper network interfaces included, in fact, recent announcements indicate that the major PC vendors are shipping 10/100/1000 with all new systems. Moving to fiber would mean buying a fiber-based network (NIC) card to replace equipment already included in the PC.

When should I recommend or install CAT 6 vs. CAT 5e?
From a future proofing perspective, it is always better to install the best cabling available. This is because it is so difficult to replace cabling inside walls, in ducts under floors and other difficult places to access. The rationale is that cabling will last at least 10 years and will support at least four to five generations of equipment during that time. If future equipment running at much higher data rates requires better cabling, it will be very expensive to pull out CAT 5e cabling at a later time to install CAT 6 cabling. So why not do it for a premium of about 20 percent over CAT 5e on an installed basis? Data transmission speeds have not slowed down EVER.

Which standard addresses the combination of electrical cable and CAT 6 regarding performance or sensitivity?
I'm an ICT Consultant for a university and in the process of designing the infrastructure for them. They are using CAT 6 cable as horizontal cabling and fiber optic as the backbone. We are facing a problem with M & E consultant on the trunking design. They are proposing the use of a four-way service box, which contains cables for electrical and CAT 6. We cannot find in the standard about the combination of electrical cable and CAT 6 cabling either of performance or sensitivity.

TIA/EIA-569 "Commercial Building Standard for Telecommunications Pathways and Spaces" includes all necessary provisions for service boxes and enclosures. There are no special considerations associated with CAT 6 cabling.

List of cables and street prices as of 3/9/2004 and 5/5/2011
Jacksonville, Fla


Copper cables will be with us for many years to come. Fiber optic cabling will continue to increase its share of the new cabling being installed for a host of valid reasons.

BISBEE is with Communication Planning Corp., a telecom and datacom design/build firm. He provides a free monthly summary of industry news on

About the Author

Frank Bisbee

Freelance Writer
Frank Bisbee is with Communication Planning Corp., a telecom and datacom design/build firm. He provides a free monthly summary of industry news on .

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