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When Steve Jobs announced the original iPhone in 2007, he famously said that the company had decided to announce it six months early because it was better “than asking the FCC to introduce it for us.” Now we’re seeing another example of how right he was about that.
Whenever Apple plans a product that includes any wireless communication technologies, such as Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, it must first pass muster with the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC). This means filing specifications with the regulator and the results of lab tests to ensure that it operates on the proper frequencies without causing undue interference.
Since the FCC is a government agency, much of this information becomes a matter of public record. Companies such as Apple can request that some information be kept confidential to protect their trade secrets. Still, the existence of a product — and the radio frequencies and technologies it uses – can’t be kept under wraps.
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Recently, the folks at 9to5Mac unearthed one such FCC filing by Apple that relates to a product described simply as a “Network Adapter.” Apple sent a sample unit of this adapter to the FCC in January. While the documents don’t include any photos, they mention some interesting details about this mysterious new device.
For instance, we know that it will support both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, two Gigabit Ethernet ports, and NFC. Here are the highlights:
- 2.4GHz 802.11n Wi-Fi 4
- Two Gigabit Ethernet ports
- An internal battery
- 32GB memory storage
- 1.5 GB RAM
The documents also note that “The device is intended to be connected to a host computer and receive its power through a USB-A port during normal use.” However, that reference to USB-A seems particularly odd, considering that the unit itself includes a USB-C port.
More interestingly, the device was also tested with an early version of iOS 15.5 (build 19F47), which means that it’s definitely a smart device of some sort, and likely incorporates an A-series chip.
Apple has also filed the usual request for confidentiality with the FCC, requesting that schematics, blocked diagrams, theory of operation, and antenna specifications be withheld from public viewing indefinitely.
The request also asks that all external and internal photographs, test setup photographs, and the user manual be withheld for 180 days after the grant of equipment authorization is issued.
Note that these requests for confidentiality are a matter of course for Apple’s FCC filings. They’re generally identical no matter what product Apple is submitting to the FCC, so it’s difficult to infer anything from the request.
What Could This Be?
Don’t get your hopes up that Apple is getting back into the router business, as there’s no way this could be an AirPort base station or extender. The limited 802.11n Wi-Fi 4 technology rules that out almost entirely.
Before Apple discontinued its AirPort lineup in 2018, it offered an AirPort Express that was limited to Wi-Fi 4, but that hardware was from 2012. The last model of the AirPort Extreme base station, which had last been updated in 2013, had adopted 802.11ac Wi-Fi 5. That gives us a pretty good idea of how old Wi-Fi 4 technology would be.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t places where Wi-Fi 4 is still in widespread use. It’s quite common in smart home devices, which don’t need the higher bandwidth or frequencies offered by newer Wi-Fi technologies. However, you’ll have a hard time finding any routers, smartphones, tablets, or laptops made in the past five years that still use this older Wi-Fi standard.
The Wi-Fi 4 technology also rules out the possibility of this being designed for something like AirPlay media streaming. While Apple’s now-discontinued Wi-Fi 4 AirPort Express can still be used for this purpose, Belkin has since released the Soundform Connect, and that’s an 802.11ac Wi-Fi 5 device. It’s hard to imagine Apple putting out a new device with an older Wi-Fi standard than its competitor.
There are rumors that Apple is working on a lower-cost Apple TV, but the older Wi-Fi standard again rules this out. Even the 2015 Apple TV HD sports dual-band 802.11ac Wi-Fi. Dual Ethernet ports would also be unusual in a set-top box, as would NFC support and an internal battery.
Assuming that this “network adapter” is a consumer-facing device at all — Apple passes internal testing equipment through the FCC as well — the only other thing we could envision is some type of HomeKit-related adapter. As mentioned earlier, most Wi-Fi smart home devices only use the 802.11n Wi-Fi 4 standard anyway. However, there’s also no evidence of Thread support, which would be an odd omission for a home adapter or hub, considering it’s a fundamental part of the new Matter standard.
Assuming that this turns into an actual product, it will be interesting to see what comes of it. It’s an oddball assortment of specs, with NFC support and dual Gigabit Ethernet ports combined with an internal battery and an iOS derivative, yet saddled with a Wi-Fi standard that fell out of widespread use nearly a decade ago..