What Is the Difference Between a Network Cable and an Ethernet Cable?

By Stephen Byron Cooper

Computer suppliers often advertise "Ethernet cable" for sale. But what is Ethernet cable? Ethernet is the name of a set of standards for networking specifically related to the physical elements of a wired network and how they handle data. Ethernet cable is network cable.

Ethernet Naming

The Ethernet cable advertised in computer stores is, in fact, Unshielded Twisted Pair, or UTP, cable. This is the most common type of cable used in networks. As almost all networks follow Ethernet standards for cabling, UTP has become the most closely identified cable for Ethernet, and is therefore called Ethernet cable. By a similar shorthand, the connector on a network cable is often called the Ethernet connector and the network socket on a computer is usually called the Ethernet socket. The Ethernet recommendations do not call any of these pieces of equipment by those names.

Ethernet

Ethernet was created by Xerox in the 1970s. It is now an open standard managed by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. An open standard is one that is freely distributed. Anyone can get a copy of an Ethernet standard because it is not a design for a piece of equipment but a recommendation for how that equipment should be configured in order to connect with similar equipment produced by other manufacturers.

802.3

The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, or the IEEE, is a New York-based standards body specializing in standards for networks -- both wired and wireless. The IEEE organizes its research in departments called working groups. Each working group specializes in defining standards for one aspect of networking. Each working group is assigned a code and all that group's recommendations are published with that code followed by a letter to make each document name unique. The IEEE working group for Ethernet has the code 802.3. Any product claiming compliance with 802.3 can be labeled "Ethernet."

Ethernet Cables

UTP is the best-known Ethernet cable. The cable type is manufactured in several different grades, with the most common category for networks called Cat 5. Of the Cat 5 category family, the Cat 5E is the most popular choice for new cable purchases. However, not all Ethernet networks use UTP, which shows that giving UTP the name "Ethernet cable" is a misnomer. Coaxial cable is also implemented for Ethernet networks. High-specification, high-speed Ethernet networks use fiber optic as the physical medium.