Venezuelans Made Lightning-Savvy Hardware to Use Bitcoin During Blackouts

Locha Mesh is building software and hardware for connecting to bitcoin's Lightning Network – even when the power's out.

Nov 1, 2019 at 9:00 a.m. UTC
Updated Sep 13, 2021 at 11:39 a.m. UTC

On March 7, 2019, all the lights went out in Venezuela. Total blackout.

While the electricity crisis was already part of everyday life, the blackout still crippled communications across the country. It also inspired Venezuelan Randy Brito to focus fully on the Locha Mesh initiative, an open-source project working to enable private messages and payments without an internet connection.

During the blackout earlier this year, it became clear to Brito that poor internet infrastructure was a leading barrier to crypto adoption. People were using dollars during the blackout not because they preferred cash, but because they lacked alternatives.

“In Venezuela, cryptocurrency adoption can be very complicated,” Brito told CoinDesk, adding:

“People can have trouble even downloading a wallet because of the lack of infrastructure.”

Locha Mesh has created two hardware prototypes so far, Turpial and Harpy, both of which act like small routers that don’t rely on local WiFi. Instead, they pass messages around the “mesh” until one outlet finally has an internet connection. (It’s not dissimilar to the work of New York-based startup goTenna.)

“These devices allow commerce [during a blackout] by making it possible for users to send and receive payments using the bitcoin network,” Brito said, describing the devices as “easy to carry and hide” for safety purposes.

In March, these small devices created an experimental system that actually worked for 22 consecutive hours, even connecting Harpy devices to the Blockstream satellite and relaying that connectivity to other users via the Turpial device. Next up, came a focus on enabling small, fast payments using a scaling solution called the Lightning Network.

“The Lightning Network requires you to be connected, otherwise, you wouldn’t know if your counterpart is lying,” Brito said. “These nodes, these devices are always connected to the Lightning Network.”

This struggle to use bitcoin without electricity is widespread across emerging markets, from Venezuela to Lebanon to the Palestinian territories. So Brito presented his latest mesh-network hardware tools for such transactions at the 2019 Lightning Conference in Berlin, because Locha Mesh is currently looking for investors and donors. His six-person team aims to start selling these devices in the first quarter of 2020.

“We are currently finishing the second prototype and development kits,” he said.

The team’s expectations are set on providing an accessible and safe form of communication for anyone in the world, said Luis Ruiz, CTO and co-founder of Locha told CoinDesk.

Said Ruiz:

“Basically, we are providing an accessible solution for anyone who finds themselves without energy or internet access in need for a safe, decentralized and censorship-resistant way of communication.”

Locha Mesh's Turpial prototypes, photo by Diana Aguilar for CoinDesk

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