FCC Makes 'category' Wiring Mandatory

The word has been out for years. Higher bandwidth telephone wire is a must for new homes.

By Patrick L. O’Toole, Senior Editor | February 28, 2001
No longer an option, a new FCC rule requires Category 3 wire or greater in all new homes. With as much as 10 times the information capacity and much faster data transfer speeds, Category-type wiring systems are ready for advanced broadband telecom services.


The word has been out for years. Higher bandwidth telephone wire is a must for new homes. Last year, in fact, the federal government made it a rule. All new or remodeled homes must have a minimum of Category 3-type wiring. But anecdotal evidence suggests that most builders are already doing better than this - oftentimes installing Category 5-type wiring.

"This is one of those rare cases where the market moved faster than the rule-making process," says Jeffrey Inks, a construction standards expert with the National Association of Home Builders. According to Inks, it is nearly impossible to install anything less than Category 3 due to lack of availability of lesser grades.

What, then, is the value of the rule issued last July by the Federal Communications Commission? It is a good reminder to all builders that although wiring may look the same, there are huge differences in performance.

"Builders and contractors should note that the new FCC rule specifies Category 3 wiring or better," says Bill Black, a vice president with wire industry trade group the Copper Development Association. "The emphasis should be on better."

According to Black and others, a simple upgrade of household telephone wiring can enormously boost bandwidth and information transfer rates for little extra cost. Category 3 wiring operates at 16 megahertz for a 10-megabyte-per-second transfer rate while Category 5 wire has a 100-megahertz capacity for a 100-megabyte per second transfer rate. Whereas the former does not accommodate broadband Internet service technologies like ISDN or DSL, the latter can do so with room to spare. Basic Category 3 wiring costs between six cents and eight cents per foot in 1000-ft. boxes. Category 5 wire costs about twice that at about .14 cents per foot in 1000-ft. boxes. A good rule of thumb is that you can get as much as 10 times the bandwidth for as little as twice the cost.

Another important difference between POTS (plain old telephone systems) and the newer Category-type wiring is the way they are installed. Going all the way back to Alexander Graham Bell, POTS systems have been installed in a straight series or daisy chain fashion. Category type systems have four wires instead of two, allowing each jack to be tied directly back to a central switching device found in each home. This home run configuration virtually eliminates the possibility of cross talk and random electrical interference from a number of common sources within the home.

All of this added capacity was made possible by relatively recent advances in wire engineering. Using the same basic materials - shielded copper wire - engineers have been able achieve vast performance improvements by twisting the pairs of wires together in a tighter, more consistent pattern. The caveat is that improper installation can often severely alter the bandwidth rates. One of the big problems, many say, is the use of flat-headed staples during rough-in.


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