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Realtek Previews Platform for Sub-$100 5GbE Network Switches

One of the more subtle trends at this year’s Computex was that the majority of high-end motherboards now come equipped with a 5GbE network controller. At present, this might be considered a limited benefit as 5GbE and 10GbE switches and routers are still pretty expensive. But Realtek is planning on tackling the issue from both ends, as the company is preparing a hardware platform for sub-$100 5GbE switches. 

Realtek’s quad-port 5GbE switch platform consists of five key chips: one RTL9303 switch system-on-chip, and four RTL8251B 5GbE physical interfaces (PHYs). The chips are accompanied by various other components, such as power management ICs, but in general it relies solely on in-house developed components, which is why it can be made so cheap. 

RealTek’s platform is meant for home and small offices, which is reflected in the switch’s feature set. This is a simple, unmanaged switch with a handful of ports, making it ideal for linking up a few systems, while enterprise users will likely find it a bit too basic.

Segmenting the market like this is ultimately critical for bringing down the price of hardware. The bulk of 5GbE/10GbE switches on the market today are more enterprise-focused managed switches, which carry more features and a price premium to match. So developing a stripped-down platform for cheaper consumer switches is a huge development that should finally make it economical for consumers to adopt faster networking hardware, similar to 2.5GbE a few years ago.

At present, 2.5GbE switches are running at around $20/port, so RealTek’s sub-$100 target for a 4-port switch aims to bring 5GbE in at just a slightly higher price tag of $25/port. Or, compared to the handful of unmanaged 10GbE switches on the market, which average $60/port, this will be less than half the price (though at half the bandwidth).

The proliferation of cheap 5GbE network switches will also mark a notable inflection point in Ethernet hardware design, as it’s the fastest standard that is rated to work the ubiquitous Cat 5e cable. The NBASE-T standard was penned almost a decade ago in order to cover the missing-middle between 1GbE and 10GbE, while getting more bandwidth out of existing, widely-deployed Cat 5e cabling. So with the release of consumer 5GbE gear, the standard’s goals are finally coming to fruition – though it does mean we’re finally reaching the end of the road for the oldest network cabling still widely in use.

For now, Realtek is only talking about one customer offering a sub-$100 5GbE switch this September, but something tells me that other partners of the company will come up with similar devices soon enough. As a result of the competition, prices could get even lower, which is always good for buyers.

These benefits should also funnel into Wi-Fi 7 routers, to a limited extent. Wired backhaul speeds need to keep pace with ever-faster Wi-Fi standards in order to keep those newer radios fed, so it’s not a coincidence that cheaper 5GbE is finally coming right as Wi-Fi 7 is taking off.

Overall, the company’s 5GbE switch platform is part of a larger ecosystem of 5GbE hardware that Realtek was showing off at Computex. In addition to RTL8251B 5GbE PHYs and RTL9303 switch SoC, the company is also preparing their RTL8126 PCIe 3.1 network controller, and RTL8157 NIC for USB dongles.

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