Ethernet is a type of communication protocol that connects computers within what’s called a “local area network (LAN)” and a “wide area network (WAN).” LAN and WAN connect various devices, such as laptops and printers, within homes, buildings, and even small neighborhoods.

Users closely associate the term “Ethernet” with the physical connection between a computer or a router. That is because your laptop usually has an Ethernet port where you plug in one end of a cable and connect the other to a router. However, as mentioned, the word refers to the communication standard itself.


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ethernet definition

Here’s a detailed explanation of Ethernet’s features.

Ethernet Origins

IEEE 802.3, which was defined by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), introduced the standards or policies governing the use of Ethernet. During its launch in the 1980s, Ethernet technologies employed a single coaxial cable from which all devices in a local area, identified by their media access control (MAC) addresses, are connected to. This early Ethernet model was called “10BASE5,” which users colloquially referred to as “thicknet.”

The issue with this antiquated setup is that when there’s a problem with one computer, the whole network is affected. So-called “collisions” or what we now know as “network congestion,” occur when devices “talk” with each other all at once. As such, communication between devices should take place one after the other.

The arrival of twisted pair cabling and hubs and switches have eliminated this technical issue. Individual connections now allow devices to transport data independently without relying on the main cable. Thus, in the modern setup, problems on a particular port will not impact other users on the network.

Another significant improvement is Ethernet’s reach. Back then, connections were limited to 100 meters from the switch to the device. However, today’s fiber-optic technology has substantially extended the distance between endpoints.

Who Invented Ethernet?

While the press reported that Ethernet was invented on 22 May 1973 when Robert Metcalfe wrote a memo to his Xerox bosses touting its potential, Metcalfe claims the invention was very gradual and lasted for several years.

Officially, Ethernet was patented in 1975. Metcalfe completed the creation of an open Ethernet standard in 1980, which became an IEEE industry standard by 1985.

How Does Ethernet Work?

Ethernet lies in the lower layers of the Open Systems Interconnection (OSI) model. It facilitates the operation of physical and data link layers. The OSI model, which is composed of seven layers, illustrates how various communication protocols work together. 

The OSI’s seven layers are:

  • Physical layer 
  • Data link layer
  • Network layer 
  • Transport layer 
  • Session layer 
  • Presentation layer 
  • Application layer

The topmost layer is the application layer, which enables users to download and access data from a browser or mail client. Users enter their queries through the application, which forwards it to the next layer. The request comes in what’s called a “packet.” The packet contains data about the destination web address and information about the sender. This information includes the sender’s IP address, device version, and browser agent.

The packet is transmitted from the application layer until it reaches the bottom layer (now called an “Ethernet frame”). The bottom or first layer is the one closest to your device. The packet travels back and forth the OSI stack, being packed and unpacked in each layer for checking.

Ethernet Advantages and Disadvantages

Like any other technology, there is a good and a bad side to using this type of communication protocol.

While Ethernet connection is faster than wireless, it is not mobile. A device designed to connect to a network via cables or through Ethernet access can’t be quickly brought to another location, such as from the office to an employee’s home. And unlike a wireless network, an Ethernet or wired network is less flexible. You can’t easily add users to a wired network as you would to a wireless one, especially if you don’t have the equipment (empty ports on routers and such) and accessories (cables and the like) on hand. 

But an Ethernet connection is more secure than a Wi-Fi connection. You can more easily control who accesses an Ethernet network as opposed to a wireless one. That makes Ethernet connections less prone to so-called “sniffing attacks.”

Ethernet access is also more stable than wireless access since radio frequencies don’t affect it. Using specialized cables (e.g., Cat6) also allows Ethernet users to save on power consumption.

Ethernet networks, however, fall a bit on the pricey side to expand, not to mention time-consuming. That’s because you’ll need more routers, switches, and meters and meters of wires. You’ll also need to rewire all the devices, which takes a lot of time. Add to that the fact that you’ll need professionals for network expansion as some wires may need to pass through walls or floors.

What Is the Difference between Ethernet and the Internet?

Both Ethernet and the Internet allow computers to connect and communicate with one another. However, they have notable differences as detailed below.


In terms of connection range, the Internet is much wider. Ethernet mainly functions on a LAN, meaning it interconnects computers in one area, such as within the same building. The use of Ethernet cables somehow expanded the range to at least 10 kilometers.

The Internet, meanwhile, interconnects computers within a WAN, which covers pretty much the entire world.

Network Administration

Ethernet and the Internet also vary in terms of network administration. Ethernet networks can have two or more administrators, depending on their size. Administrators, meanwhile, can only control and manage small parts of the Internet but no one can control the entire network.


Because of its smaller size, an Ethernet network is much easier to secure than the Internet. No one from outside the Ethernet network can access the network and thus pose harm to its users.

What’s the Difference between Ethernet and Wi-Fi?

The primary difference between Ethernet and Wi-Fi is the way data is transmitted. Ethernet requires cables for data transmission, while Wi-Fi does this via wireless signals. This difference dictates the connection reliability, speed, and security.

Ethernet vs WiFi

Using Wi-Fi offers mobility as users can access the Internet regardless of their location just as long as there is wireless connection in the area. On the other hand, connecting to the Internet through Ethernet requires cables, so users cannot move freely.

However, Ethernet provides faster connection than Wi-Fi. It is also more reliable as it’s not susceptible to environmental interference. When it comes to security, an Ethernet connection is safer since you need to connect a physical device to access data. In contrast, a Wi-Fi connection can be easily intercepted using the right tools.

What Are the Types of Ethernet Cables?

Various types of cables can be used to enable Ethernet connection, but the three most common ones are the following:

  • Coaxial cables: Coaxial cables are among the first types of Ethernet cables, with a transmission speed of up to 10 megabits per second (Mbps). Twisted-pair cables replaced them.
Coaxial cable


  • Twisted pair cables: This Ethernet cable has a transmission speed of up to 1 gigabit per second (Gbps).
Twisted pair cable


  • Fiber-optic cables: Fiber-optic cables contain glass strands, allowing data transmission in the form of light signals. It has the same speed as twisted pair cables, but it is more weather resistant.
Fiber-optic cable


What Are the Types of Ethernet Connections?

There are four kinds of Ethernet networks.

  • Fast Ethernet: This provides high-speed Internet access, allowing you to send or receive data at about 100Mbps. It usually uses twisted pair cables.
  • Gigabit Ethernet: This transfers data at an even higher speed than Fast Ethernet—about 1,000Mbps or 1Gbps. It was created to replace Fast Ethernet, which is slowly being phased out. It also uses twisted pair cables.
  • 10-Gigabit Ethernet: This is even more advanced and faster than Gigabit Ethernet with a data transfer rate of 10Gbps. It uses twisted pair and fiber-optic cables.
  • Switch Ethernet: This network type requires a switch or hub. Instead of twisted pair cables, it uses normal network cables. The network switches are used to transfer data from one device to another without interrupting any other devices in the network.

The following table sums up their differences.

Types of Ethernet

Ethernet has been a widely used method of connecting computers. While its use may have been superseded by the Internet, most organizations still rely on this type of communication protocol for its security.

Key Takeaways

  • Ethernet is a type of communication protocol that connects computers within what’s called a “LAN” and a “WAN.”
  • Robert Metcalfe began creating Ethernet on 22 May 1973 when he told his bosses at Xerox about its potential. But it was only awarded a patent in 1980 and became an IEEE standard in 1985.
  • Ethernet requires the seven layers of OSI to work. These are the physical, data link, network, transport, session, presentation, and application layers.
  • It primarily differs from Wi-Fi in that it isn’t mobile. It differs from the Internet in terms of connection, network administration, and security.
  • Three of the most commonly used Ethernet cables are coaxial, twisted pair, and fiber-optic cables.
  • There are four kinds of Ethernet connections—Fast, Gigabit, 10-Gigabit, and Switch. Of these, 10-Gigabit Ethernet is the fastest.

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