Lightning: Bitcoin’s Second Layer
When Bitcoin arrived in January of 2009, one of the first criticisms was that it was too slow. It takes about an hour for a transaction to finalize on the network.* It was also criticized because the block size limited the number of Bitcoin transactions meaning that Bitcoin couldn’t compete with Visa and MasterCard.** This all changed with the adoption of the Bitcoin Lightning Network. The base layer—the Bitcoin blockchain—is great for final settlement of large transactions; however, with an hour wait time for a transaction, it’s terrible for buying a cup of coffee.
You probably don’t think about this, but credit cards take even longer to reach final settlement. When you buy a cup of coffee with a credit card, you don’t really have final settlement until you pay your credit card bill a couple of months later. Compared to that, an hour looks fast. Of course, credit cards benefit from a bunch of laws and legal precedents that make that coffee purchase look final. That legal and regulatory infrastructure is still being worked out with cryptocurrencies.
The Bitcoin Lightning Network is a second layer solution—just like credit cards are a second layer on top of the underlying banking system. Lightning is decentralized—it is not run by a company and is not hosted on a server, so it cannot be shutdown. Lightning uses peer-to-peer “payment channels” to pay for small purchases like a cup of coffee. Like your credit card transaction, you appear to have final settlement when the lightning payment goes through; however, the funds are not settled to the Bitcoin blockchain until a later date. Basically, the funds in your Lightning node*** decrease, while the funds in the coffee shop’s Lightning wallet increase. That all happens instantaneously; however, unlike a credit card transaction, there’s no debt. Lightning transactions are more like faster and less expensive Fedwire (wire transfers), ACH, or SWIFT transactions.
Third Layer Applications
In my last article, I promised you freedom, so let’s get to that! Lightning payments can contain any arbitrary message. Because the underlying Lightning Network is encrypted, those messages are secure. Imagine email where you are paid for every email you get. You might still get junk email, but at least you’re making some money from each message. There are already secure messaging apps, like Sphinx. Tired of Twitter bans? Move to Sphinx. There’s a payment gateway, BTCPay, If you need a point of sale app for your business or maybe you’re having trouble with credit card companies or just don’t want to pay their high fees, then BTCPay and a Lightning node might work for you. Remember, Bitcoin and Lightning are decentralized, so they can’t be canceled.
And the Lightning Network has been tested in the real world. You may have heard about El Salvador declaring Bitcoin legal tender. Bitcoin, the Lightning Network, the non-profit Bitcoin Beach, and the startup company Strike made worked with the government of El Salvador to make that happen through pilot programs run in El Zonte, El Salvador. Here’s Jack Mallers, CEO of Strike, talking about Lightning and Bitcoin as a payment network:
In short, the international payment rails of SWIFT, provisioned, secured, and spied on by banks and governments, are being replaced by a decentralized, secure payment and messaging network largely run by volunteer hobbyists. I’m sure all will agree: the peasants are revolting! Next up: the Senate infrastructure bill and the Lightning Network.
* It takes about 10 minutes for each new block to be added to the blockchain, so your transaction should appear within that time if you included a high enough transaction fee. Miner’s tend to defer transactions with low fees; however, some fees are better than no fees, so eventually even transactions with low fees will be included in a block—it just might take a few days. After your transaction is included in a block, it’s generally not considered finalized until a few more blocks have been mined. In rare cases, a block that’s been recently mined is later rejected by the network. An hour is usually enough time for five or six blocks to be mined insuring your transaction is finalized.
** The relatively small block size of the Bitcoin blockchain ultimately led the the “Blocksize War” of 2017. Shorter: after a couple of hard forks (Bitcoin Cash (BCH) and Bitcoin Satoshi’s Vision (BSV)), small block sizes—good ol’ fashioned BTC Bitcoin—won. This continues to be important because it means the current BTC blockchain is less than 500Gb (about 360Gb as of this writing), which means that you can run a Bitcoin node on relatively modest hardware with a 1Tb SSD and rely on that node for years to come. You could even use a 1Tb HD, but instead of taking about 3 days to sync the blockchain on the SSD, it will take about 30 on older hard disk technology. Once initially sync’d, performance will be comparable regardless of whether you’re using an SSD or HD.
*** You don’t have to operate a Lightning node. Their are online Bitcoin Lightning wallets. Or you could use an online service, like Strike, that leverages the Bitcoin Lightning Network to facilitate payments in US dollars. If you want to join the monetary revolution and setup your own Lightning Node, I recommend Umbrel. The hardware costs about $250 and the Get Umbrel website walks you through the setup. Keep in mind that you have to have some BTC to put on it and commit to Lightning channels, so the total dollars to get started will be driven more by that than the hardware costs.