You might have noticed by now how I'm a big fan of using network cables -- as opposed to Wi-Fi -- as a way to extend a home network.
While it might sound counterintuitive, getting your home wired is the only way to get the best-performing system, including one with lots of Wi-Fi clients. And network wiring is a must if you want to go multi-Gigabit or enjoy true Gigabit broadband. In the grand scheme of things, it is the only way to really "future-proof" your home's tech, including Wi-Fi.
Running cables can be such pain and, sometimes, is so for a rather unusual reason. A reader named Martin wrote to me a while back, saying in part:
[...] I had to drill a bunch of little holes to push the wire through. Not a huge deal. The thing is, by the time I got it to where I wanted, the connector's head was damaged. Now I have a non-working cable. [...]
Well, Martin, I feel you. But using ready-made network cables is not ideal in your case. Most importantly, that cable still works fine, and you're very close.
That's right, the actual physical work of running the cables from one place to another (and installing the mounting boxes) is the hardest part of getting a home wired.
If you're willing to do or have done that, this post will help you deal with the rest. It's easier than you think and will come in handy when you need to fix, build, or upgrade a home network.
Getting your home wired: What you need
First and foremost, you need to figure out the places to run the cables to and from. A network cable has two ends. Generally, they are both the same. But for the sake of this post, let's call them A and B.
A is where the cable starts, and B is where it ends. More specifically, the A end goes into a switch (or router), and the B end goes into a wired device -- a computer, a Wi-Fi access point, or another switch.
Figuring out the locations
You only need one or two cables to have a mesh system with a wired backhaul in many homes.
In case you're new to mesh Wi-Fi systems
Fronthaul is the Wi-Fi signals broadcast outward for clients or the network ports for wired devices. It's what we generally expect from a Wi-Fi broadcaster.
Backhaul (a.k.a backbone,) on the other hand, is the link between one satellite Wi-Fi broadcaster and another, which can be the network's primary router, a switch, or another satellite unit.
This link works behind the scenes to keep the hardware units together as a system. It also determines the ceiling bandwidth (and speed) of all devices connected to the particular broadcaster.
The connection type, a Wi-Fi band or a network port, used for the backhaul is often called the uplink. A Wi-Fi broadcaster might use one of its bands (2.4GHz, 5GHz, or 6GHz) or a network port for the uplink.
When a Wi-Fi band handles backhaul and fronthaul simultaneously, only half its bandwidth is available to either end. From the perspective of a connected client, that phenomenon is called signal loss.
A Wi-Fi connection between two direct parties occurs in a single band, using one fixed channel, at any given time. This principle applies to all existing Wi-Fi standards, up to Wi-Fi 6E.
When a Wi-Fi band functions solely for backhauling, it's called the dedicated backhaul.
In a mesh system, only traditional Tri-band hardware -- those with an additional 5GHz band -- can have a dedicated backhaul band without ostracizing clients of the same band.
Generally, it's best to use network cables for backhauling -- wired backhauling. And that's an advantage of mesh hardware with network ports. In this case, a satellite broadcaster can use its entire Wi-Fi bandwidth for front-hauling.
In networking, network cables are always much better than wireless in speed and reliability.
In this case, you run the cable(s) from where the router is to where you want to put the Wi-Fi satellite unit(s), which should be the other end of the home or at least the middle of it.
Alternatively, you can run a cable from the cable modem or a Fiber-optic ONT (or any Internet source) to where you want to place the Wi-Fi router. It's all about proper hardware placement so that you get the best coverage.
On the other hand, if you want to go all out and get the entire home wired, you'll need to have a place where all the cables' A ends converge. It's best to have them all in a small room or closet where your Internet service line comes into the house.
From there, have the B ends of the cables go to different parts of the house, as many as you want, including places where you intend to mount your TV, PoE cameras, access points, and whatnot. Personally, I have two for each room in my home. In the place I use as my office, I have a couple for each wall.
What network cable to get
If you only need to run a cable in an open space, it's OK to use a long ready-made cable. But chances are you will have to run the cables behind a wall, in the attic, outside the house, etc.
In this case, it's best to buy them in bulk. Now you can cut any length you want, and bulk cables are a lot more affordable than ready-made alternatives.
By the way, if you intend to run cables in the attic or outside of your home, it's a good idea to use weatherproof ones or use a conduit if you live in areas with rough weather or extreme temperatures.
In the San Francisco Bay Area, where I live, my experience is indoor cables can last decades outdoors with no issue. The weather plays a big role. But generally, it's always better to use high-quality cables.
Get the bulk long enough for the entire home. (Note that each cable needs some slack.) Generally, a spindle of 1000 feet (330 m) is more than enough for a large house.
Picking cable grades: CAT5e vs CAT6 vs CAT7 vs CAT8
As for cable grades, there's no discernible difference between CAT5e and CAT6 (or CAT6a/e) for home applications. Both can deliver up to 10 Gbps but at different max lengths.
CAT5e can do ten Gigabits per second, despite conventional wisdom that the grade maxes out at 1Gbps. Generally, fast speed over longer distances is what sets different cable grades apart.
Here is the max length at which each cable grade can deliver 10Gbps:
- CAT5e: 45 meters (148 feet)
- CAT6: 55 meters (180 feet)
- CAT6a/e: 100 meters (330 feet)
- CAT7/CAT8: Over 100 meters. (CAT7 and CAT8 are designed for faster-than-10Gbps applications.)
The higher the number that follows CAT, the more expensive the cable gets, but starting with CAT5e, the number of internal wires remains the same -- all have eight wires organized in four pairs. The quality of these wires, their specs, and how the pairs are kept from one another are what set them apart as different CAT grades.
In a network, the switch (or router) and end devices determine a connection's final speed -- it's that of the slowest party involved. The point is that CAT5e cables will suffice for virtually any home.
But it doesn't hurt to go with CAT6 (or any higher grade). And generally, if you expect full Gigabit or faster real-world speeds, go with CAT6a or a higher grade to be safe.
The rule of picking which to use is that the harder it is to run the cables, the more it makes sense to use a higher (and more expensive) cable grade. But if your place is already wired with CAT5e, there's no need to break the walls just so that you can use higher-grade cables. And you can also use cables of different grades in different parts of a home.
Note that the higher the grade, the more stiff the cable gets. For this reason, CAT6e or higher is generally only used for running outdoors or behind a wall. To connect a device to a network port, which we're about to make, you'll note that we generally only use short CAT6a or lower-grade cables. And they are all we'd need anyway.
The basic rule of network wiring
Running network cables is different from wiring a home for electricity. You need one cable for each connection. You can't split a network cable the way you do an electrical wire or service line (phone or coaxial) and expect it to work.
The only way to make one network connection available to multiple wired devices is via a switch. And that involves multiple cables.
That said, let's take this specific scenario:
Your Internet service line comes in your basement, and that's where you want to put your router. Now, if you want to use a wired device in your living room (like your Xbox) and another in your office (a desktop computer), here are the two ways to run the wires:
Getting a home wired the standard way -- recommended
- One cable from the basement to the living room.
- Another cable from the basement to the office.
- Connect the cables' A ends to the router and B ends to the wired devices.
Getting a home wired the daisy-chain method -- not ideal, but more realistic
- One cable from the basement to the living room.
- A switch in the living room.
- Another cable from the living room to the office.
- Connect the first cable's A end to the router.
- Now connect the first cable's B end and the second cable's A end to the switch
- Then connect the second cable's B end to the desktop computer.
- Use a third short (ready-made) cable to connect the Xbox to the switch.
Either wiring method will work equally well in terms of speed -- they're just different in the amount of wiring, parts, and labor.
And in reality, you'll probably use both. That's because even when you use the standard way, there's always a chance you need to connect more wired devices than the number of network ports available at a location.
And that brings us to the next important part: The things you attach to the ends of the cables.
What parts to get
Bulk cables don't include the parts that make them work as network ones out of the box. They are generic wires that can be used for many different applications. Before a section can work as a network cable, we have to turn each end into a network connector or port.
So, we need to get these modular bits and install them at the A and B ends of each cable.
Connector vs port (Crimp vs Jack)
A connector is an end that goes into a network port. A jack is a network port you can plug a connector into. They are male and female terminals.
The parts for these ends are normally called connectors and ports, but you also find them labeled as RJ45 Crimps and RJ45 Jacks, respectively. (There are many other names, too, like plugs, couplers, and so on.)
If you buy a ready-made network cable, you will note that both ends are crimped connectors. And that's a good thing, when applicable, always use ready-made cables, which come in many appropriate (short) lengths, to connect wired devices to your network.
We can make such cables -- I've made plenty myself -- but I'd recommend against using connectors (crimps) for the cables' ends when it comes to getting a home wired. It's best to turn them into network ports. I speak from years of experience.
Here are a few reasons:
- Less work: It's much easier and faster to attach a port (RJ45 Jack) to a cable.
- Higher chance of success: The possibility of making a mistake with a jack is much slimmer than with a crimp. Pay a bit of attention, and you can make a perfect network port on the very first try -- more below.
- Stability: A network port remains stationary, which allows the cable behind the wall to stay unchanged.
- Flexibility: Once you have a network port, you're free to use a (ready-made) cable of any length to connect to it.
That said, let's agree that we'll go with using RJ45 Jacks. The objective now is to create a network port at either end of a cable.
You can also buy jacks in bulk. You need two for each cable, so get however many per your need and then a couple more as spares. They are relatively inexpensive.
Getting a home wired: Matching cables and jacks
The bulk cable grade mentioned above (CAT5e, CAT6, and so on) is just part of the deal. A network cable's actual grade depends on what you put at each end, too, whichever is lower.
So, if you use a CAT5e bulk cable with CAT6 jacks, you'll get a CAT5e network cable. And the general rule is always to use the cable and modular bits of the same grade.
If you have to mix them up for some reason, keep this in mind:
Chances are they are going to work, but, again, always at the speed of the lower grade. Generally, it's more acceptable to use CAT6 jacks (or crimps) on a CAT5e cable than the other way around. So, if you decide to go with CAT6 wiring, don't use any CAT5e end bits.
Here's the most important: It's best to use the same type at both ends of a cable.
Extra: Patch panel
A patch panel is basically many RJ45 Jacks (network ports) arranged in one place for easy management.
If you want to run five or more cables, it's a good idea to get a patch panel for their A ends instead of having many separate network ports.
A patch panel tends to have 12 ports or more -- those with fewer ports can be quite expensive --but you don't have to use them all. The idea is to get one that has the same or more ports you'd need.
Each port on a panel is numbered, which is a great way to know which cable goes to which location -- if you also number the other end of the cables with the same digits.
By the way, if you need to run more cables than the number of LAN ports on your router, then it's also time to get a switch to add more ports to the router.
The tools you need
For the job we're about to do, namely turning a cable's ends into network ports, we need two pieces of equipment. Both are relatively inexpensive, costing about $20 each.
A Punch-down tool
A punch-down tool is a device that you use to punch the cable's internal wires onto a jack. It's super easy and fun to use.
A Crimping tool (or a pair of scissors)
A crimping tool is primarily for crimping the network cable and turning its ends into network connectors. But it's also great for cutting a cable or removing its shielding to reveal the internal wires.
For what we do here, though, you can get away with a pair of scissors.
Getting your home wired: The inside of a network cable
Inside each network cable (CAT5e grade or higher), you find eight little wires in four twisted pairs.
Each pair has a color of its own, including Blue, Orange, Green, and Brown, with one wire being a solid color and the other mostly white with a color stripe.
It's important to be aware of these colors since each wire needs to match the jack in a particular order.
Other than that, you'll also find a pull string, which varies depending on the cable grade. This string is very strong and works as support when you need to pull the cable from one place to another.
You can pull pretty hard on a network cable without damaging it. Just don't pull too hard.
By the way, when running a network cable, make sure you give it some slack and then leave some extra at both ends. You can always cut it shorter or roll it up, but the other way around is very hard.
Understanding the wiring pattern
You need to know the wiring pattern to add a port (or a connector) to a cable's end. There are two, including T-568A and T-568B.
Don't worry about the details of these numbers. Consider them as proper names.
These are popular terminations, or pinouts, for Ethernet cables of CAT5e and higher (CAT6a/e, CAT7, CAT8, and so on). They are two specific ways to match the colors of the wires with the pins of the terminal pieces (connector or port).
T-568A vs T-568B
Either of these patterns will work as long as you use the same at both ends. In this case, we have a Straight-Through Ethernet standard cable.
If you use T-568A at one end and T-568B at the other, you'll make a Crossover Ethernet cable. This cable won't work as the straight-through one, but it's great to connect two devices directly without a router in between.
It's worth noting that generally, T-568B is the preferred wiring pattern and the one I'm using for this post as well as in real life. If you buy a ready-made cable, chances are it also uses this wiring pattern.
Generally, it's not a good idea to mix up the cable's two ends. Pick a pattern and go with it. Consistently! If you use the wrong patterns (even when consistently so at both ends), the cable will not work at all or work at reduced speed (10Mbps or 100Mbps). Not a good thing.
Extra: How to find out if a cable uses T-568A or T-568B
To find out if a cable uses which pattern, take a look at its connector. First, flip it so that the clip side is away from you. Now, if the first pin is stripe green, it's a T-568A; if it's stripe orange, it's a T-568B.
Now, look at the other end. If it's the same, then it's a straight-through cable. If not, then it's a crossover. (By default, all network cables are straight-through, you have to specify that you want a crossover to find one.)
Of course, you can always cut off the tip of the cable and re-crimp it. However, again, we don't do that in this post.
Extra: Why making your own network connectors is not a good idea
As you can imagine from the pattern above, crimping a cable is quite painful and prone to errors.
- You first have to arrange all eight little wires in a specific pattern as shown above -- good luck with that!
- Then cut off the tips of the wires to make them all even -- good luck again!
- Then stick all of them into a tiny crimp plug without messing up the pattern -- make sure you hold your breath when you're at it.
- After that, insert the plug itself -- with the wires loosely attached -- into the crimper's hole.
- Finally, crimp the whole thing with one hand while keeping your other's fingers crossed in high hopes that the wires' order won't be shoved around during the process.
OK, it's not that painful, but you get the idea.
Getting your home wired: How to make a network port
Making a network port (CAT5e or higher) out of a cable's end is much easier than turning it into a connector.
You only need to deal with a single wire at a time. As long as you're not severely color-blind, you can't make a mistake. The steps below will help.
I used CAT5e parts for the photos, but everything is the same if you use CAT6 or a higher equivalent.
I picked CAT5e for this post because the cable generally has fewer protective layers than higher-grade cables and therefore is easy to take clear photos of the process. Also, the pictures only serve as examples and are not part of a real project -- I'd be too busy to take photos (and my hand wouldn't be that clean, among other things).
1. Determine the wiring pattern
Take a look at the jack and determine which wiring pattern you'll use. Again, either will work, but the T-568B is the most common.
Note how each groove has its own color corresponding to the cable's wires, as mentioned above.
2. Prepare the wire
Cut the cable tip to remove any parts of the internal wires that you might have inadvertently damaged during the installation, as this was the case with Martin mentioned at the beginning of the post.
Now use the crimp tool (or the scissors) to remove about 1 inch (2.5 cm) of the shielding to reveal the copper wires. Spread them out as twisted pairs. (You can cut off the pull string or just put it out of the way.)
3. Install the wires on the jack
Keep the pairs as together as possible. Now press them down individually on the grooves of the jack, matching the colors of the pattern (T-568B in this case.)
There's no need to press them down too hard, just tight enough so they won't fall out.
4. Punch ’em down!
Now comes the fun part. Use the punch-down tool to push the wires down onto the groove -- one at a time.
You need a surface for this (the wall will do). Make sure you put the blade side of the tool's tip on the outside -- it'll cut off the extra wire. Now press it down in a quick action. You'll hear a satisfying click sound.
Repeat that with the rest of the wires, and you have yourself a network port perfectly attached to the cable. (The attachment is actually really tight and much more durable than a hand-crimped connector head.)
5. Attach the port to a face plate
Now, if you have a mounting box, attach the port to the box's faceplate. Mission accomplished!
If not, you can get a surface-mount box. Even if you leave the cable loose, you still just got yourself a network port.
And that's it. Now repeat the same process at the other end of the cable and the rest of the cables, and you just seriously got your home wired.
Extra: How to wire a patch panel
Wiring a patch panel is like wiring a bunch of jacks at the same spot. The principle is the same: You match the colors of the wires with the grooves on the panel.
Under each panel, you'll also see the pinout patterns of both T-568A and T-568B wiring methods. Pick one, and go with it consistently. By the way, on a patch panel, you might find all eight wires of a cable (a port) on one side.
Wire one port of the panel and its corresponding cable's B-end. Test that to make sure you get everything correctly. That's to avoid the case where you might misread the pattern or color positions on the panel and apply that to the rest of the ports.
Also note that if you make a mistake in the wiring of one port, that might cascade to the rest of the ports.
If you make a mistake, you can just jank the wires out of the panel -- you won't damage it -- trim the cable and try again.
Again, make sure you get a panel that has enough ports for the number of cables you've run. In this example, I used a 12-port panel even though I only ran six lines. By the way, I finished this job in less than 30 minutes, including the time spent on the photos.
Getting your home wired: The takeaway
Again, what I described above is the easiest part of wiring a home, though it can seem the most intimidating. Hopefully, the latter is only so before you've read this post.
So here's the trick: Get someone lanky to do the actual work of running the cables. Once they've gotten the cables' ends sticking out of the wall (or the floor), send them home! It's time for you to have fun while saving some money on labor.
It's very satisfying to see how much better your home (Wi-Fi) network becomes afterward, especially when you can claim you did that (all) by yourself!