Consumer Ethernet performance has been stuck at gigabit speeds for nearly 20 years. Apple was the first company to ship gigabit Ethernet in motherboards. Intel’s 875P chipset popularized the feature in the PC market by connecting the Ethernet controller to the northbridge, thereby offering improved performance. Thirteen years later, gigabit is still the standard for wired Ethernet — but that might be about to change, thanks to a new wired networking standard from the IEEE 802.3bz task force.
There are multiple reasons why we’ve been stuck on gigabit for as long as we have. 10GbE requires more expensive cabling — either fiber optic cable in some cases, or more expensive Cat6a or Cat7 cabling for others. It’s not as backwards-compatible with previous standards (half-duplex operation isn’t supported), and routers, switches, and network cards that can support 10GbE are all far more expensive than their gigabit counterparts.
But one simple reason gigabit Ethernet has stuck around so long is that it’s taken a long time for the average home network to demand enough bandwidth to saturate it. That’s slowly starting to change. Wireless performance improvements, the increased popularity of media streaming, and the slow rollout of gigabit fiber across the US (thanks in part to Google) are all signs that in the long run, we’re going to need a faster standard.
The two new IEEE standards, known as 2.5GBASE-T and 5GBASE-T, should satisfy that need. These two standards were specifically created to use 10GbE signaling, but at a rate that would be compatible with existing runs of Cat5e and Cat6 cable out to 100 meters. The 2.5Gbps standard can run on Cat5e out to 100 meters, while the 5Gbps standard requires Cat6 cable to run 100 meters. Both should be far easier — and cheaper — to bring to market than current 10GbE technologies.
This is still a long-term rollout for most of us. Typical homes and small offices pull more data from the internet than across local networks, and the vast majority of Americans don’t have access to gigabit yet. Home and small office networks may also still require new hardware to take advantage of the standard. Many lower-end routers and switches that advertise themselves as gigabit capable only support that standard on a single port rather than across the entire device.
Still, the nature of a standard is to be forward-looking. Technically proficient consumers who build their own networks could still see immediate performance improvements from higher-speed networking cards and gear, and newer wireless standards are already capable of challenging gigabit wired performance. Hopefully the appearance of the new 2.5GbE and 5GbE standards will spur companies like Intel and AMD to start work on compatible chipsets.