Will bitcoin transaction fees ever get better?
Any good news is still a long way off.
Bitcoin transaction fees hit a then-outrageous then-peak of US$20 average on 12 November 2017. It smashed that unseemly record on 8 December, and since then its average transaction fees have been riding at over US$20.
It's not hard to see the connection between bitcoin prices, unconfirmed transactions and transfer fees.
Sources: Bitinfo, Blockchain.info, Coindesk
What these numbers show
- Average transaction fee: The mean transaction fee per bitcoin transfer in US dollars.
- Unconfirmed transactions: The number of pending transactions awaiting confirmation, in tens of thousands. This generally indicates how long transfers take.
- Bitcoin price: The bitcoin daily high, measured by thousands of US dollars.
It's obvious enough that high prices are driving user uptake, which clogs up the network. But what's less obvious is just how immediate the correlation is.
The correlation might be running in both directions too, with network difficulties keeping a lid on bitcoin prices.
Will it get better?
It's safe to say that bitcoin will need to solve this problem if it wants to go further. The good news for investors is that the upcoming bitcoin Lightning Network update should help a lot. The bad news is that it might be better on paper than in practice.
What's the Lightning Network?
The Lightning update is a major change for bitcoin.
In oversimplified terms it basically it works by creating a whole new series payment channels on the network which can be used instead of the main blockchain based system. Peer to peer transactions on the Lightning Network can theoretically be done with almost nonexistent transaction fees.
So instead of clogging up the blockchain by sending every single transaction through it, the bulk of them will run outside the blockchain entirely. The nodes that form the Lightning payment network will, however, be connected to the blockchain.
Fees on the Lightning Network are paid to the node operators, and will be taken as a percentage of the transaction plus a slight flat amount. This will facilitate microtransactions, but means it won't be much good for larger transactions. Those stay on the current blockchain instead.
Theoretically the Lightning Network could solve the current bitcoin transaction problems. But in the real world it's not quite as easy.
The first problem is that there's still no date for the Lightning Network rollout. It's currently undergoing testing, but it's almost certainly going to be months before it's ready for release.
The second problem is that even once it is ready, it will require willing uptake from bitcoin users. People will need to go out of their way to actually set up those Lightning nodes and start using it. The scale of this obstacle can't be overstated.
Consider Segwit (segregated witness) . This update was released in August to reduce the amount of data involved in each transaction. Essentially you can fit more Segwit transactions onto one block. This improves transaction times and reduces fees.
But now, almost half a year later and with the bitcoin network slowed to a crawl, fewer than 10% of transactions actually bother with Segwit. This is because it's a bit of a hassle and requires some additional steps to use. Bitcoin in general isn't the easiest-to-use currency, especially for newcomers, so a layer of complication like Segwit naturally goes unused.
It's very clear that simply having a viable solution isn't enough. People actually need to start using it.
Plus, the Lightning Network actually requires Segwit in order to work. The Lightning Network upgrade is still under construction and probably won't be ready for months. But even if was ready to go today, people still wouldn't be using it.