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AirPort Express stock-outs at Apple retail stores and Best Buy may hint at upcoming refresh

Apple Store AirPort Express availability in San Francisco area.

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Brick-and-mortar Apple Stores, as well as some Best Buy outlets, are seeing stock-outs of Apple's AirPort Express, fueling speculation that the Cupertino company may be planning a refresh ahead of an anticipated next-gen iPhone release.

AppleInsider has verified reports that multiple Apple Stores and Best Buy locations across the U.S. are out of the diminutive Wi-Fi router, with sales representatives not able to provide estimates of when new shipments are scheduled to arrive.

The Online Apple Store still has units in stock and ready to ship within 24 hours, as do certain Apple Stores, though other locations are showing "Ships to store" or "Unavailable for Pickup" status.

While not a clear indication that a new version is imminent, the stock-outs are notable as supply of the Express has been consistent since it was last refreshed over a year ago. The timing is also suspect given the first AirPort Express debuted in 2004, with Apple releasing two subsequent generations at four-year intervals. The last iteration featured a redesign and dual-band 802.11n compatibility.

With the launch of the latest MacBook Airs in June, however, Apple introduced support for 802.11ac standard, an upgrade to the long-standing 802.11n seen in all current Macs and Wi-Fi capable iOS devices. To go along with the laptops' new wireless capabilities, the company also introduced redesigned AirPort Extreme and Time Capsule models with support for the speedy Wi-Fi protocol.

Industry watchers anticipate Apple will deliver 802.11ac support across its entire Mac lineup as new models roll out, including expected Haswell-based MacBook Pro models rumored to ship in September and a new Mac Pro slated for release by the end of 2013. Whether the specification will be included in next-generation iOS devices is unknown.

Apple's next big announcement is widely expected to be a Sept. 10 unveiling of the next-generation "iPhone 5S" and more affordable "iPhone 5C." There have been no rumors suggesting that a new AirPort Express will be part of the event.