If you’re an early experimenter of the Bitcoin Lightning Network like me, you’ve probably quickly run into the issue of getting inbound channels opened to you to create receivable capacity. Thankfully there are companies like Bitrefill working to overcome these pain points.
The Problem with Lightning
This issue of inbound capacity becomes especially important if you have an e-commerce store like me. When I first started, users had to open a channel directly to me since my node was not well-connected to have enough inbound capacity for customer’s transactions (not a great user experience). One of the critical obstacles of the Lightning Network today is that while it’s easy to open a channel to another well-connected node, that channel only immediately gets you outbound capacity (to send Bitcoin). This means that in order for your node to receive Bitcoin, you either have to 1) spend some Bitcoin within the channel you created, or 2) convince others to open an inbound channel with you. That would be like having to agree to set aside 100 dollars of money with Amazon at all times just in case you want to buy things from Amazon in the future. While this may seem like a critical flaw of the Lightning network, I see it as simply anther challenge to be solved by innovative people.
How Bitfreill Helps Solve that Problem
Bitrefill itself is a company that allows you to pay your bills, refill phone minutes, buy gift cards, and more using Bitcoin. You start by adding some Bitcoin to your wallet on Bitrefill.com, and then select from a wide variety of options. The user experience is particularly smooth, which is refreshing to see in this nascent space.
When you click “Lightning”, that’s where Thor comes in. Essentially it is a service that will open a lightning network channel to you, using Bitrefill’s own extremely well-connected node. The amounts of incoming capacity you can purchase are: .005, .02, .04, .08, and .16 BTC. The fees are surprisingly manageable, starting from .00056 BTC to .0048 BTC. That means it’s only about $25 for over $750 worth of capacity (right now Bitcoin is about 5k USD). Regardless, you’re getting about 30x the capacity of what you put in — that’s a lot of bang for your buck!
In order to open your incoming channel, there are only 2 primary methods.
- Download the Bitcoin Lightning Wallet app on the google play store and scan the QR code found on the payment history page in your Bitrefill account (this is the method I used)
- If you are running an LND client, there is also a command you can paste into the console which will authenticate you and open a node
All the instructions are clearly outlined on the Bitrefill website, so I won’t get into too much detail here. I should also mention you can open a “Turbo Channel” through Thor, which seems like it allows you to open the channel instantly without waiting for confirmations on the main chain. I did not need this level of service but it may be useful for some.
Shortcomings of Thor
Although I’m excited about what Bitrefill and Thor have to offer, they come with a few downsides as well. I see these more as obstacles to leap over, although I feel like I should mention them here.
Android and LND nodes only supported
If you are an iOS user, there is currently no mobile wallet for you. This almost affected me, although luckily I had an old OnePlus Android phone buried in my drawer. I now use it exclusively to run the Bitrefill-connected node.
I also could not connect to the node on my desktop, as I was using a C-Lightning implementation. Therefore, I was unable to open a direct channel to the primary node I use for my e-commerce store. As a workaround, I opened yet another channel from my mobile Android node to my store’s C-Lightning node. This is kind of hacky, and I would love to see more Thor integration options in the future.
Private channels only (on mobile)
After I downloaded and set up the Bitcoin Lightning Wallet app from the Google Play store, the first thing I did was search for my node on a Lightning Network Explorer. I was confused when I could not find it, but learned that all mobile BLW nodes are private and do not broadcast themselves. Unfortunately, that’s out of my control. If it was a public node, I would consider using that as my primary node. For now, I will have to use the Android node as kind of a high-liquidity, well-connected hopping point to my real store’s node.
Bitrefill is really taking a step in the right direction by directly addressing a pain point of the Lightning Network with Thor. I have found this service personally useful because as an online retailer, I want all payments to be as seamless as possible. If somebody has to open a channel directly with me, that’s a huge point of friction for the user to allocate a constant sum of money just to potentially buy coffee from me a few times. Kudos to Bitrefill for helping make my node easier for anyone to route to, and I hope this information is useful.