What is the difference between Shielded and Unshielded Network Cables?

Network patch cables or network cables as they are commonly referred to, have a number of applications in the network infrastructure that you employ in your daily life. While installing or updating those network infrastructures, you might need to get your hand at the standard network cables which are available in the market. For instance, the cables can transfer voice at just 1 Mbps or as high as 10,000 Mbps for a Gigabit ethernet cable. 

The standard network patch cables are of two variants 

  • Shielded Twisted Pair Cables or STPs and

  • Unshielded Twisted Pair Cables or UTPs 

These are commonly referred to as Shielded and Unshielded network cables. Twisted pair cabling is a particular technological innovation which helps in reducing Electromagnetic Interference or EMI. It’s easy to get vivid audio and video output signals in your device.

EMI: What is it?

In terms of electronic appliances, Electromagnetic Interference is an extremely crucial factor. It is also known as “noise” in the common language. 

When electromagnetic field is generated due to some reason, it causes hindrance in the propagation of other electromagnetic signals. This is referred to as EMI. EMI can crosstalk between various circuits and cause :

  • Degradation of data 

  • Increased errors during transmission and 

  • Reduced speed of transmission.

EMI could be present in the environment you plan to install your electronic devices. EMI is generally caused by the existence of motors, generators, air conditioners and even essential appliances found in offices like fluorescent lights and printers. 

Structural difference of Shielded and Unshielded Network cables and the associated performance 

A shielded network cable or a Shielded Twisted Pair Cable or STP, has an outer coating of a conductive material which is present as a sheath over the internal conducting circuit. The outer sheathing material needs to be grounded in order to nullify the effects of EMI.

The external conductive sheath functions by reflecting off or conducting the outer interference away without affecting the signals carried by the internal conductors. Hence, shielded Ethernet cables are mostly employed in the protection of signals from EMI so they can exhibit faster transmission speeds with the occurrence of fewer data errors.

Unshielded network cables or Unshielded Twisted Pair Cables or UTPs lack any additional shielding like aluminium or meshing and therefore provide much less protection than standard STPs. Their performance also deteriorates once EMI is pre-existing in the installation environment. Unshielded network cables are lighter and cheaper than Shielded network cables.

Difference in application between Shielded and Unshielded network cables 

The most important difference between shielded and unshielded network cables lie in their applications. You will notice that their applications differ by a wide range owing to their structural characteristics. The shielding material design will render varied performance for the STPs and UTPs and it is pronounced enough for you to notice. 

It is said that some sequentially numbered Ethernet cables like : Cat6 shielded and unshielded cables will result in providing at least 10Gbps speed for transmission. But in radio stations or airports, the CAT6 unshielded cable will encounter slower transmission speeds and a massive amount of data transmission errors when they are maintaining a close proximity with electronic devices which produce high EMI. 

But with the presence of the shielding material, STP cables perform with a lot of finesse in such environments which are prone to encounter a lot of EMI. in the case of the above example, STPs will provide foolproof transmission quality which is almost free of errors and has a high speed compared to the ones transmitted through UTPs. 

Therefore it can be concluded that STPs perform faster and with an enhanced degree of finesse in office or commercial spaces with a high chance of interference, whereas you can conveniently use a UTP for your home LANs.

Difference in grounding methods 

Along with the difference in structural design and application, UTP cables and STP cables vary in terms of grounding.

While the UTP cables have a much lighter cabling grounding for themselves, the STPs have a more robust and formidable grounding and bonding process for their shielding material. The perfect grounding reduces noise whereas the wrong one can pave the path for increased interference. 

Owing to the non-formidable grounding methods, the UTPs have a much cheaper cost and take less time for installation, as compared to the STPs, which should go through tougher grounding procedures.

What should you choose?

When it comes to choosing shielded versus unshielded Ethernet cables for your requirements, the decision depends largely on the area or environment of installation and use.

Places like Hospitals, Airports, Factories and Radio stations encounter a massive amount of interference due to the innumerable machines that are operating continuously. Homes do not encounter such a heavy amount of interference. The former places should opt for STP cabling whereas it is wise to choose UTPs for your home and basic office usage.

The budget of the cables also becomes an important factor while choosing the type of network cable that you plan to install. While the budget gap is narrow, STPs cost more than UTPs due to their specialized design and grounding methods. The budget becomes a significant impediment when large installations are done over an extended area. There, STPs provide increased resistance to EMIs from UTPs, but would cost significantly higher than their unshielded peers. 

The installation of shielded and unshielded network cables is largely dependent on their intended sectors of application as well as the financial constraints that determine installation. While buying network cables for your usage, you should carefully consider these above-mentioned factors and make the purchase that suits your requirements to the greatest extent.


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