The Lightning Network

What is the Lightning Network, how does it work and what are it's benefits, challenges and considerations?


What is the Lightning Network?

The Lightning Network is a "layer 2" payment protocol layered on top of Bitcoin. It enables fast, scalable, and low-cost transactions by allowing users to create payment channels between two parties on that extra layer. This method contributes towards solving Bitcoin’s transaction scalability issues, such as slow transaction speeds and high fees, especially during peak usage.

How Does the Lightning Network Work?

The Lightning Network operates through a network of payment channels that allow transactions to occur separate to the main blockchain ("off-chain"), thus decongesting the network and reducing transaction fees. Here's how it works:

Opening a Payment Channel: Two parties who wish to transact with each other regularly can set up a payment channel. This involves creating a with a certain amount of bitcoin into it to a two-of-two multi-signature output (i.e. one that requires both people sign any further transaction for it to be valid). This initial transaction is broadcast and recorded on the Bitcoin blockchain. A second transaction is then created, which would close ("pay out") the channel, but is not broadcast or recorded, but simply kept between the two parties.

Making Transactions: Once the channel is open, the two parties can make unlimited transactions with each other by 'updating' the closing transaction and both signing it. These transactions are not broadcast to the network or recorded on Bitcoin's blockchain, which means they are almost instant and free of the usual transaction fees. Each transaction updates the balance sheet of how much Bitcoin each party has.

Because Lightning is a network and not simply a channel between two parties, transactions can also be made to other people with whom you don't have a channel open. If Alice has a channel with Bob, and Bob has a channel with Carol, then Alice can pay Carol without opening a new channel by asking Bob to update his channel with Carol and then updating the channel between Alice and Bob. As a routing node Bob's total balance remains the same as it's gone up on his channel with Alice and down on his channel with Carol.

The Lightning network contains cryptographic security to ensure that when a payment is routed in this manner, Bob can't steal the funds:- he is only able to collect the payment from Alice when he has cryptographically proved that he is paying Carol.

Closing the Channel: When the two parties decide they no longer want to have a channel, they can close the channel by broadcasting the most recent version of the transaction that represents their channel to the network. The final state of their balance sheet is paid out to their respective addresses. In total, only two transactions ever appear on the blockchain: the channel's opening transaction and the channel's closing transaction, regardless of how many transactions were made off-chain between these two events.

Benefits of the Lightning Network

Speed: Transactions can occur almost instantly, making Bitcoin more practical for everyday transactions.

Lower Fees: Transaction fees are significantly lower by reducing the load on the main blockchain.

Scalability: Potentially, millions of transactions can be handled per second which is not possible if making transactions on Bitcoin's blockchain directly.

Privacy: Transactions made within a payment channel are not broadcast publicly, offering more privacy than standard Bitcoin transactions.

Challenges and Considerations

While the Lightning Network addresses several of Bitcoin's scalability and cost issues, it has challenges and limitations. These include the need for users to be online to receive payments, the complexity of managing channels, and the risk of funds being locked in case of a dispute or technical issue.

Many of these issues can be addressed by software that abstracts functionality away from the user, however each solution comes with its own unique considerations as tradeoffs for the added simplicity.

Getting Started with the Lightning Network

For beginners interested in exploring the Lightning Network, here are a few steps to get started:

  • Learn more: Understanding the basics of Lightning Network's operation is important. Resources like Lyn Alden's article provide more detailed insights.

  • Choose a Wallet: Select a Lightning Network-enabled wallet. Some popular options include Phoenix, Wallet of Satoshi, and Zeus.

  • Experiment with Small Amounts: Begin by transacting small amounts to familiarise yourself with the specific features and functions of your wallet. Be aware that self-custodial wallets will charge fees for opening and closing channels.

  • Stay Informed: The Lightning Network is rapidly evolving. Joining communities and forums can help you stay updated on the latest developments.


The Lightning Network represents an advancement in making bitcoin a more practical and scalable option for digital transactions. By understanding the basics of how it works, users can better leverage its potential for fast, low-cost transactions. As the network continues to develop and gain adoption, it could play a crucial role in the broader acceptance and use of bitcoin for everyday transactions.

If you're curious about Bitcoin and the Lightning Network, we are building the world's first fully-integrated payments system and handheld-terminal for businesses. Join our mailing list, follow us on Twitter or get in touch.