As Bitcoin (BTC) is dependent on internet connectivity, it might be seen as a drawback when using this technology. However, emerging solutions are reducing the relevance of this dependence, whether for making payments with BTC or synchronizing your Bitcoin node. In fact, achieving the latter may soon become even easier thanks to a new project poised to enhance Bitcoin decentralization.
Canada-based Bitcoin infrastructure giant Blockstream recently announced new plans to improve its Bitcoin satellite service by starting experiments with a new type of broadcast by the year's end. These geosynchronous satellites, currently numbering four, have been orbiting our planet at an altitude of 35,786 km for six years. They have played an important role in providing Bitcoin enthusiasts with primary or secondary connections to the Bitcoin network, bolstering privacy, and facilitating access to Bitcoin blockchain data, Lightning Network (a Bitcoin scaling solution) data, as well as the source code for a fully-validating Bitcoin node.
But what exactly is this experiment all about?
It's all about zero-knowledge proofs (ZKPs), a cryptographic method for proving something without revealing sensitive or unnecessary data. For instance, ZKPs can help confirm someone's age as 21 without disclosing any personal information. ZKPs play a crucial role in enhancing both privacy and efficiency in blockchain usage by reducing the amount of data that needs to be transmitted.
As a result, Blockstream has partnered with Swiss-based ZeroSync and is working on implementing ZKPs in its satellite broadcasts. This effort aims to accelerate the synchronization of Bitcoin nodes. The entire Bitcoin blockchain, which encompasses nearly 15 years of transaction history, currently occupies 514GB of storage space on some nodes, and it might take a few weeks to synchronize it through the satellite network.
Bitcoin blockchain size chart, in GB
The importance of nodes and decentralization
“The ZKP approach is expected to significantly alleviate the problem by drastically reducing the data we send over satellite. So, we plan to leverage ZKPs and other improvements to the Bitcoin Satellite implementation (our satellite-specific fork of Bitcoin Core) to enhance our efficiency and keep up with the chain growth,” Igor Freire, the lead developer at the Blockstream Satellite project, told Cybernews.com.
The company estimates that ZKPs could render Bitcoin node synchronization 'nearly instantaneous' with only a fraction of the memory overhead.
Why is this important? Nodes play a pivotal role in the Bitcoin ecosystem, as they receive, transmit, and validate BTC transactions while contributing significantly to the determination of Bitcoin's rule set. Among these nodes, known as archival nodes, some store the entire history of Bitcoin transactions.
Consequently, a higher number of nodes enhances Bitcoin's decentralization, resilience, and resistance to censorship. In a podcast, the ZeroSync team even suggested that ZKPs have the potential to enable anyone to run a full node on their smartphone.
According to Bitnodes data, there are currently 16,572 reachable Bitcoin nodes.
The easier it is to run a Bitcoin node, the more likely it is for the network of nodes to grow rapidly and become even more decentralized. Therefore, the combination of satellites and ZKPs can simplify and enhance this process, making it more user-friendly.
Furthermore, according to Blockstream, a community member who lacks internet access but has access to the satellite could serve as a hub. They could reshare and broadcast the chain proof, establishing a kind of subnetwork for Bitcoin:
“This would give other members of the community near-instant access to the Bitcoin blockchain using low-end hardware like a local network-connected phone or even a web browser.”
Additionally, as per Igor Freire, another feature the company is pursuing is two-way communications.
“Our current service is one-way only, meaning our users can only download data from the satellites but cannot send anything. As a result, in the current model, a satellite-only user (disconnected from the internet) could not send Bitcoin transactions to the network, for instance,” he said without specifying when this feature might be available.
However, internet users can still transmit various types of data (text, audio, images, video, etc.) via these satellites using the company's API or website. Payment is made in BTC via the Lightning Network (at the time of writing, broadcasting a short sentence would cost $0.00026).
Additionally, the company emphasizes alternative methods such as mesh networks like goTenna, SMS gateways, or portable two-way systems like Iridium GO, which can aid in broadcasting transmissions in the event of an internet outage.
Furthermore, the use of the satellites is free of charge (except when broadcasting data, as mentioned above); users are only required to cover the cost of equipment. Dedicated kits can be purchased through Blockstream or assembled independently, as the company provides hardware guides.
According to the company, data is transmitted to the satellites via ground stations that are geographically distributed around the world.
Currently, four satellites provide coverage for most of the planet.
Satellite network coverage
“In the longer term, we could resume the coverage expansion plans after introducing two-way connectivity,” Freire said, noting that “historically, people from all continents and regions have contacted us in our support channels.”
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