The Bitcoin lightning network has seen rapid growth since its first transaction in December 2017. There were just 89 lightning payment channels on 19 January 2018, but now there are over 6,600.
The lightning network is a scalability solution for Bitcoin that can massively reduce transaction fees while drastically increasing transactions per second. The lightning network was developed and launched during a time when Bitcoin transaction fees hit all-time highs of nearly 60 USD, making it practically unusable as a currency. The high fees were the result of people sending more transactions than the network could handle, over a quarter million transactions were unconfirmed and sitting in the mempool on 22 December 2017.
A payment channel on the lightning network is created when two users send Bitcoins into a multi-signature wallet, and the transaction opening the channel is stored on the blockchain. The users can then send bitcoins back and forth to each other completely off-chain, using smart contract technology. A ledger is kept by both parties, and after each lightning network transaction between the parties, they sign an updated ledger with their private keys.
Users can send an infinite amount of transactions through a lightning network channel without paying any transaction fees, and all the payments occur within a fraction of a second rather than the average of 10 minutes that it takes for transactions on the Bitcoin blockchain to confirm.
Either party involved with a lightning network channel can broadcast the last valid ledger which was signed by both parties to the blockchain, at which point the bitcoins locked up in the multi-signature address will be disbursed to both parties according to the final ledger entry. This is designed so that neither party in a channel can back out of a payment that has already been agreed upon and mutually signed.
Essentially, when using the lightning network there are only two transactions ever recorded on the Bitcoin blockchain for each payment channel; the transaction which creates the channel and the transaction which ends the channel, and all transactions in-between are off-chain.
This has the potential to allow for many orders of magnitude more Bitcoin transactions per second than the blockchain can handle by itself. Right now there are less than 10 Bitcoin transactions per second, but the lightning network could handle millions or billions of transactions per second, blowing Visa out of the water.
The lightning network still has some development to undergo before it is perfected and made impervious to hacks, but the fact that there are thousands of payment channels now open is a good indicator that it is functional. The lightning network will provide the framework for solving Bitcoin’s scalability problem over a long term. It will allow Bitcoin to be useful as a currency no matter how high the price or transaction volume gets, and therefore the lightning network is essential for Bitcoin becoming a widely adopted global currency.
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