Whether you are sitting at home, at work, or in a coffee shop, Internet access would not be possible without the use of Ethernet cables. Even if you are on Wi-Fi, the device transmitting that wireless signal uses Ethernet itself. But not all Ethernet connections are rated equally. For cables, there are different categories that can be used to measure data transmission speed and bandwidth. But for hardware like modems, routers, and switches, different terminology is used. Namely, the terms “Fast Ethernet” and “Gigabit Ethernet”.

Fast Ethernet

“Fast Ethernet” is a somewhat misleading term since these systems are not fast by modern standards. Originally released in 1995, Fast Ethernet supports data speeds of up to 100 Mbps (megabits per second) for a distance of up to 10 kilometers (6.2 miles). At the time, this was much faster than anyone really needed for practical applications. But as the years have gone by and technologies with higher data consumption have been introduced, such as video streaming, Fast Ethernet has started to see its limits.

There are two key advantages to using Fast Ethernet over Gigabit Ethernet today. First, it is less expensive since it is older technology. Second, it is much easier to configure. Cables can simply be plugged into Fast Ethernet devices and everything will be ready to go. All the settings and configurations are automatically handled by the device. Additionally, other hardware such as routers and modems are fully compatible with Fast Ethernet.

Gigabit Ethernet

Gigabit Ethernet has several advantages over Fast Ethernet. For starters, it supports speeds ten times faster at 1000 Mbps (1 Gbps) and covers a distance of up to 70 kilometers (43.5 miles). While it was introduced to the market less than four years after Fast Ethernet, Gigabit Ethernet did not start to see real use until around 2010. This was around the time that video streaming and other activities that require a lot of data and bandwidth really started picking up steam.

As far as Internet speeds go, Gigabit is unlikely to make a noticeable difference unless a network uses fiber Internet. But it will have significant benefits on internal network traffic. Networks moving around large amounts of data will see a substantial increase in network traffic speed on Gigabit as opposed to Fast Ethernet.

The downside of Gigabit Ethernet is the configuration and cost. Gigabit must be configured manually; it does not have the “plug-and-play” option of Fast Ethernet. These setups are more complex and time-consuming in comparison. Additionally, not all hardware is compatible with Gigabit Ethernet. Purchasing equipment that is compatible is roughly four times more expensive (on average) than using standard (Fast Ethernet) devices.

Fast or Gigabit?

It is important to remember that you cannot mix-and-match Fast Ethernet with Gigabit Ethernet. If even one spot in your network uses Fast Ethernet, any and all data passing through that point will be slowed to 100 Mbps even if it was going at 1000 Mbps speeds via Gigabit Ethernet somewhere else in the network. Upgrading to Gigabit is an all-or-nothing decision.

Most modems and routers today are built with Gigabit Ethernet in mind. And Gigabit is backward-compatible with Fast Ethernet, so there will be no issues from that. Other equipment, such as network switches, are not always built for Gigabit. Needing the Gigabit version of that other hardware is where Gigabit’s increased cost comes into play.

When deciding between these two options, weigh the pros and cons of each option based on the needs of your network.

  • Speed: Gigabit Ethernet is 10x faster than Fast Ethernet.
  • Configuration: Fast Ethernet configures automatically. Gigabit requires manual setup.
  • Distance: Gigabit goes up to 70 kilometers. Fast Ethernet only goes up to 10 kilometers.
  • Cost: Fast Ethernet is available on all hardware. Gigabit specialized hardware is 4x more expensive, on average.

On the whole, these pros and cons balance out pretty evenly. Determine which of these factors are going to be your key focus when making a decision between Fast or Gigabit Ethernet.