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When you think that the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) standardized 1 Gigabit Ethernet in 1997, and then in 2010 standardized 100 Gigabit Ethernet, a hundred-fold jump in data transfer speeds in the span of less than 14 years, it is nothing short of remarkable. Such is the nature of computer technology; the push to move bigger data at faster speeds drives the competitive and highly concentrated networking industry.

The latest in networking technology pulls back on the reins a bit with the introduction of intermediate speed Ethernet, designed to address data transfer speeds over 1 Gbps and less than 10 Gbps. The push to standardize 2.5 and 5 Gigabit Ethernet started last year and has begun to bear new products, namely high-end “multigigabit” Ethernet switches, which are almost ready to go to market.

Multigigabit Ethernet is a response to a faster 802.11ac Wi-Fi standard

For the first time ever, wireless access points (APs) are capable of transferring data faster than many Ethernet cables that run from a network switch can support.

In 2013, the IEEE introduced the next generation Wi-Fi, called 802.11ac, with quoted theoretical data transfer rates of 1.3 Gbps. That was a huge jump from the previous standard, 802.11n, capable of transferring data at a mere 300 Mbps.

Wireless is growing even faster. On the horizon is an informal addendum to the 801.11ac standard, the so-called Second Wave of 802.11ac, which boasts theoretical speeds at well over 3 Gbps. Manufacturers are developing chipsets that they say will accelerate wireless data transfers even further—up to 6.93 Gbps, according to Cisco product manager Chris Spain, one of the topic’s thought leaders.

Wireless APs capable of transfers faster than 1 Gbps are already on the consumer market—and they’re getting faster

802.11ac wireless access points capable of data transfers of more than 1 Gbps have been on the market for over two years already. You will notice when browsing through wireless APs that manufacturers quote transfer speeds from 1.2 Gbps to as high as 3.2 Gbps. If an AP retails for above $150, there’s a good chance it is quoting data transfers better than 1 Gpbs.

The 802.11ac Wave 2 products with speeds over 6 Gpbs are anticipated to come to market later this year.

Breaking the bottleneck of Cat 5e cable limitations

In many enterprise and medium-sized business networks, legacy Ethernet cables are Cat 5e, which top out at a 1 Gpbs data transfer rate. In order to gain the speed advantages of APs using 802.11ac, it requires ripping out a lot of cabling and replacing with new Cat 6 cables, which supports data transfers up to 10 Gbps.

Additionally, Cat 6 cables have a distance limitation of 100 meters; beyond that, transference speeds drop below 1 Gbps. Newer (and more expensive) Cat 6a cables, however, are capable of a longer reach.

Re-cabling large scale networks can be pricey in terms of man hours and cable costs, which is why companies like Cisco are developing switch hardware capable of accelerating faster data transfers, so that wireless APs can work at the top of their range on existing cable infrastructure over large networks with a lot of Cat 5e cables.

Multigigabit Ethernet switches are the solution

Since Cisco is at the forefront of this technology, naturally they are pushing for the IEEE standardization that will legitimize it. Cisco is fitting its high-end Catalyst Ethernet switches with intermediate Ethernet settings, which it says will be capable of pushing 2.5 Gbps across a Cat 5e cable, and 5 Gbps across Cat 6 cables.

With prices in the $3,000 range for a 48-port switch, Cisco Catalyst represents the top of the line for enterprise networking equipment, and are commonplace in medium to large network settings.

Are multigigabit Ethernet switches for you?

If your business does not already have an investment in Cisco gear, chances are your needs aren’t to the scale that requires this type of technology. The cabling infrastructure that needs to be in place to justify that level of expenditure are usually found in large data centers or campus settings.

This is not to say that your business will not benefit from 802.11ac Wi-Fi. As BYOD sees mainstream adoption, the need for fast, secure wireless access is paramount. For an SMB, hooking up a few hundred feet of Cat 6a between a several 802.11ac high speed APs and a network switch usually is a more appropriate solution for maximizing 801.11ac data transfer speeds.

Whether your switch has to have mutligigabit capabilities—that’s a different story.

“We are not hearing any requests for multigigabit switches currently from our customers,” says Peter Newton, a product manager with Netgear. “We expect that customers will adopt more affordable solutions than re-cabling their networks with a second run of Cat 5e or a single run of Cat 6 for 10 Gbps support.”

Whether or not multigigabit Ethernet fits your needs, the developments in Wave 2 of 802.11ac networking will be interesting to watch as 2015 progresses. The product launches surrounding 2.5 and 5 gigabit Ethernet technology will be a dominant story in computer networking for years to come.

2.5 and 5 Gigabit Ethernet: Five Things to Know
Article Name
2.5 and 5 Gigabit Ethernet: Five Things to Know
The push to standardize 2.5 and 5 Gigabit Ethernet has begun to bear new products, namely multigigabit Ethernet switches. Let's take a look.
Adam Lovinus

Author Adam Lovinus

A tech writer and Raspberry Pi enthusiast from Orange County, California.

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Join the discussion 3 Comments

  • Randy Huot says:

    It’s been two years; where are the switches, NICs, MBs that run this. So far I’ve seen an ASRock announcement but no stock.

    I’d genuinely like to go over gigabit on my next set of gear (CAT 6) but 10gb is still too expensive.

    • ruben says:

      If we had 10 gig ports on our PC what changes do you need to fully utilize 10 GIGs? You need a 10 Gig WAN connection. Tell me how much that will cost. Or you can go dark fiber… You need to know your stuff to do this. 2.5,5 gb and 10 gig cards do not matter if your WAN does not support it!!!!!!!

  • ron schwartz says:

    It is still not present in 2020 i am still searching for home use fitting switches and devices which are affordable.
    Even now nothing has changed while these devices are still pretty darn overpriced.
    And worst still are seen for business use as well, they forget that some users do have a benefit from a high speed LAN, first of all even though wifi is becoming faster its still a very unreliable network especially if the distance is larger than 10 metres away and actually does often not even work atr much shorter ranges.
    I have been struggling for years to get a decent wifi setup in my house even though i use extenders, mesh and whatever its not really the solution unless i would be willing to put several thousands of euros into a AX business wifi solution.
    I tested many mesh soltuions in my house and was pretty darn pissed that non of them actually is able to function as promised by the reviewers and companies who sell and promote this stuff.
    For instance i use a fritzbox modem a 7583 because the fastest internet i can get is a dual vdsl connection which maxes out at 200 Mbit’s and is limited to 60 Mbit/s up apparently non of the providers is willing to allow the newest vdsl speeds which actually can go up to 400 Mbit’s. To be honest is kinda clear in our country there is no longer any real competition left all other have disappeared so we are stuck with a sole vdsl provider network which simply is not going to put more money in the existing network at all
    The lack of competition is the main reason why every advance into new tech is not needed because there is nobody who can pass the current provider its will. They own all networks even though they are officially seperate entitiies and kinda never admit they are fully owned by this big owners.
    So the progress ended and is stagnating at the will of the only provider left, i actually see that also happening in a very large portion of the usa as well, almost everyone i know living out of large cities is often by the same providers and acutally never have had any choice either.
    True there is a small revolution happening one of the smaller fiberoptic providers is busy giving small communities a fiber optic network but sadly where i live it won’t happen at all ( the small town i live in does not get any fiber options ever, because its an older part of the town and thats not going to be updated to fiberoptic networks.
    Sure you can buy yourself your own network but that means you have to be able to pay for the few 100.000 euros costing connection of digging and connecting the fiber to a 4 km away connection point.
    As usual this only works if all people in the neighbourhood was willing to chip in and start using this fiber solution, but of course most do not want to change or are not willing to pay for this at all.

    Back on the problem the current available multi switches for small networks are kinda expenssive and are often just to small or just too big. The ones who are being sold as 5 ports are actually 4 ports devices and the 8 port ones are actually way too small or just because of the useless SFP ports

What's your take?