Venezuelans made super smart hardware to use Bitcoin during blackouts

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

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

During the blackout earlier this year, it was clear to Brito that poor Internet infrastructure was a major barrier to the adoption of encryption. People were using dollars during the blackout not because they preferred money but because they had no alternatives.

"In Venezuela, adopting cryptocurrencies can be very complicated," Brito told CoinDesk, adding:

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

Locha Mesh has created two hardware prototypes so far, Turpial and Harpy, which function as small routers that do not rely on local WiFi. Instead, they pass messages through the mesh until an outlet finally has an Internet connection. (It's no different from the work of startup New York-based goTenna.)

“These devices enable commerce [during a blackout], enabling users to send and receive payments using the bitcoin network,” said Brito, describing the devices as “easy to carry and hide” for security reasons.

In March, these small devices created an experimental system that worked for 22 consecutive hours, connecting Harpy devices to the Blockstream satellite and transmitting this connectivity to other users via the Turpial device. Next, it focused on enabling small and fast payments using a sizing solution called Lightning Network.

"Lightning Network requires you to be connected, otherwise you wouldn't know if your colleague is lying," Brito said. “These nodes, these devices are always connected to Lightning Network.”

This struggle to use bitcoin without electricity is widespread in emerging markets, from Venezuela to Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. So Brito presented his latest mesh hardware tools for these transactions at 2019's Lightning Conference in Berlin, because Locha Mesh is currently looking for investors and donors. Its six-person team plans to start selling these devices in Q1 of 2020.

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

The team's expectations are set to provide an accessible and secure form of communication for anyone in the world, Luis Ruiz, CTO and Locha co-founder, told CoinDesk.

Said Ruiz:

“Basically, we are providing an affordable solution for those without power or Internet access, needing a secure, decentralized and censorship-resistant means of communication.”

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