Rising fees seem to be the only thing people talk about in the bitcoin world these days.
The crypto space is full of frustration and vitriol on the topic, as the average transaction fee has soared to $19, turning bitcoin’s old claim to fame as a cheaper online payment method into a laughable assertion.
But despite these increasing costs, and the long-running debate they’ve caused, developers and users argue there are simple ways to decrease fees that aren’t being fully taken advantage of.
This point was raised recently when new data came to light suggesting that one bitcoin startup, Coinbase, singlehandedly facilitates as many as half of all bitcoin transactions, based on the drop in overall network volume when the U.S.-based exchange went offline for a couple hours on Jan. 11.
The problem with that situation, according to critics, is the company could singlehandedly save users (not only its own but other companies’ customers as well) a bundle on their transactions by implementing a couple technical features, namely Segregated Witness (SegWit).
And since the code change for SegWit was activated on bitcoin nearly six months ago, many are upset Coinbase hasn’t yet implemented it.
Sergej Kotliar, the CEO of payment provider Bitrefill, called the new data a “smoking gun” in that it shows how much of bitcoin’s limited transaction space Coinbase is using up. The pseudonymous blogger WhalePanda went so far as to blame bitcoin’s transaction backlogs and high fees on the Silicon Valley startup’s “incompetence.”
Patience is running especially thin as it relates to Coinbase, since the startup was one of the more vocal during bitcoin’s block size debate, complaining about high fees and arguing that an increase in the block size parameter would help alleviate those expenses.
Yet, critics argue, the company really shouldn’t be complaining since it’s not doing everything it can to push fees lower.
In response, Coinbase co-founder and CEO Brian Armstrong took to Twitter to stress that the company is working on rolling out technical features to reduce fees, but hinted that it’s not easy. “Thanks for bearing with us!” he said. (Coinbase declined to comment for this story).
But should users not be interested in enduring the fees for transacting, there are several possible ways to reduce them today.
The fee halver
SegWit was lauded as the optimization that would help bitcoin scale without upping the block size during last year’s scaling debates – yet only 12% of bitcoin transactions take advantage of the technology, even though SegWit transactions cost half as much as normal transactions.
Not all wallets currently have SegWit capability, but hardware wallets Trezor and Ledger support it and mobile wallets such as Edge (formerly Airbitz) and privacy-minded Samourai Wallet do as well.
But for users who don’t want to go through the trouble of switching providers, SegWit capability is on its way at other companies too.
Coinbase and Blockchain.info are working on implementations, for example, but both have emphasized that SegWit is a new and complex change that they need to take their time with – they could lose user funds if a big enough mistake occurred.
Overall though, as the number of companies supporting the new feature grows, bitcoin fees will decrease – some even argue that transaction fees would disappear altogether if SegWit transactions replaced normal transactions.
But if fees aren’t eliminated altogether, a more specific type of SegWit address is in the works, which could potentially save users more in the future.
But while users wait for mass SegWit adoption, they can reduce fees individually using fee estimators.
Although early bitcoin wallets didn’t let users choose fees, this has changed, with many bitcoin wallets providing fee estimator tools to help users decide how much of a fee they should attach to their transaction to get it through the network in a timely manner.
In short, the higher the fee, the quicker the transaction will get added to a block, but on the other hand, users don’t want to overpay. New fee estimator tools try to help users strike the right balance.
That said, some estimators are better than others.
Some users check with standalone tools that consider different factors, such as the estimator from University of Freiburg computer science researcher Jochen Hoenicke, which gives a good idea of what fee is required to get your transaction into the next block.
Another from Coinb.in considers transaction complexity – such as how much data is sent with the transaction. Fees also take this into account, meaning that even a transaction equal to $1 could have large fees based on a large amount of data attached to the transaction, whereas a transaction equal to $1,000 could have a smaller fee if the amount of data attached to it is limited.
Users have criticized some estimators as telling them to pay higher fees than necessary, but that’s partly because fees are so difficult to predict. Fees can fluctuate for all sorts of reasons. The day of the week, for instance, can be a factor since people generally make fewer transactions on the weekend, meaning transaction backlogs would ease and fees wouldn’t need to be so high during that time.
In this way, users who don’t need to send money right away always have the option to wait for transaction backlogs to die down.
Beyond that, there are more roundabout ways to eliminate transaction fees completely, but these are highly dependent on what wallet or exchange provider is used.
While the idea of batching a bunch of smaller transactions into one big transaction has been used in the traditional payments space for some time, it’s becoming more popular for bitcoin businesses that facilitate payments.
If more companies use this feature effectively, bitcoin transaction fees could be reduced by as much as 80 percent, according to one estimate. However, it’s worth mentioning that batching can erode privacy and is potentially slower, depending on how the company or user implements it.
Despite these tradeoffs, though, several companies, including Coinbase, have announced they intend to implement batching to tame fees.
In an effort to keep up with all the industry’s progress on decreasing fees, Bitrefill’s Kotliar launched a tool that allows users to see how optimized their bitcoin transactions are, displaying whether the transaction used batches, SegWit or a handful of other mechanisms shown to increase or decrease fees.
“Just paste a transaction ID and see if you’re overpaying for your bitcoin transactions and withdrawals,” Kotliar tweeted.
Plus, looking even further into the future, bitcoin developers are working on a handful of projects, such as the Lightning Network, that would be instrumental in reducing transaction fees, even as the number of people using the network continues to grow.
Summing up the work in the industry to reduce transaction fees in the short term, BitGo engineer Mark Erhardt tweeted:
“There is a lot of throughput to be gained by making better use of the available capacity.”