What is Ethernet? The wired network connection, explained

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What is Ethernet? The wired network connection, explained
Ethernet is a wired internet connection that uses Ethernet cables. Professor25/Getty Images
  • Ethernet is the most common type of local area network (LAN) technology, and it involves a hardwired connection to the internet.
  • Ethernet comes in several varieties including Fast Ethernet, Gigabit Ethernet, and 10-gigabit Ethernet.
  • While Ethernet is more stable and secure than Wi-Fi, it is typically less accessible and can be more expensive.
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While Wi-Fi may be the more easily available option for connecting to the internet these days, many homes and businesses still rely on Ethernet to create networks between devices as well as between those devices and the online world.

What is Ethernet?

Ethernet is the most common type of local area network (LAN) technology, and it involves a hardwired connection to the internet through Ethernet cables. These cables - such as Cat5, Cat6, and so on - are used to tether a device to an internet router and transfer data.

Ethernet has the benefit of being faster than Wi-Fi thanks to its use of cables for a wired connection and its lack of reliance on radio waves; it also happens to be more stable and secure for the same reasons.

What is Ethernet? The wired network connection, explained
Ethernet cables connect your devices to an internet router. Yanawut Suntornkij / EyeEm/Getty Images

Ethernet functions on a local area network (LAN) basis, connecting a series of computers over a distance of up to about 10 kilometers, typically in a school or workplace setting within the same building.

While Ethernet might seem slightly outdated in the age of wireless connection, it remains highly useful for particular, intensive tasks, such as video streaming and virtual communication.

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Types of Ethernet

  • Fast Ethernet: This type of Ethernet connection offers high speeds of roughly 100 Mbps when transmitting. To operate this type of Ethernet connection, you'll generally need a Cat5 cable or twisted pair.
  • Gigabit Ethernet: If Fast Ethernet isn't offering you the speeds you need, Gigabit Ethernet offers about 1,000 Mbps or 1 Gbps. This kind of connection is beginning to replace Fast Ethernet and phasing its predecessor out since it better supports video streaming and other more advanced tasks.
  • 10-gigabit Ethernet: Offering speeds of roughly 10 Gbps, you'll need a Cat6a, Cat7 twisted pair cable, or other fiber-optic cables. This type of connection is not yet as widely supported as Gigabit Ethernet and Fast Ethernet but will become increasingly used in the years to come.

Advantages of Ethernet

  • Speed: An Ethernet connection is almost always faster than Wi-Fi because it uses a cable to transfer data nearly instantaneously, whereas a wireless network relies on the comparatively slow and diffuse transfer of data over radio waves.
  • Stability: By the same token, Ethernet tends to make for a more stable connection to the internet than Wi-Fi, as its tethered cables provide a stability that a dependency on wireless frequencies can't consistently offer.
  • Security: Ethernet connections are also more secure since you can control who has access to the LAN; if someone isn't connected to the LAN, they have no access to its data and devices.

Disadvantages of Ethernet

  • Accessibility: It's more difficult to add users to an Ethernet network as doing so requires empty router ports and cables, and many devices such as tablets and mobile phones don't have built-in Ethernet ports.
  • Transportability: The hardwired, physical connection of Ethernet isn't easily transportable from one location to another or even from one device to another.
  • Cost: Because Ethernet connections require equipment to facilitate, they can be expensive to expand and take a considerable amount of time and energy. While a single home office may be relatively simple to outfit, expanding it throughout a house, office building, or campus takes some effort. Professionals may even be required if additional wiring is needed.
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