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Lightning Network: What It Is and How It Works

Last Updated July 12, 2023 9:39 AM
Andrew Kamsky
Last Updated July 12, 2023 9:39 AM

Key Takeaways

  • The Lightning Network is a layer-two solution designed to address the scalability challenges of the Bitcoin blockchain. 
  • Lightning operates through payment channels, which are bidirectional channels between participants that enable trustless transactions without involving the main blockchain.
  • While Coinbase, a leading cryptocurrency exchange, does not currently support the Lightning Network, its CEO expressed intention to integrate it into the Coinbase platform in the future.
  • The Lightning Network is not a publicly traded asset or cryptocurrency. It functions as a protocol suite and does not have its independent tradable token.

What Is The Lightning Network?

The Lightning Network is a solution designed to address the scalability challenges of the Bitcoin blockchain. At its core, it is a payment channel network operating at the layer-two level on the blockchain. The Lightning Network was introduced by Joseph Poon and Thaddeus Dryja in a paper  published in January 2016.

Traditional blockchain networks, like Bitcoin, have a limited capacity to process transactions due to block size and block confirmation time constraints. The Lightning Network aims to overcome these limitations by allowing participants to conduct a large number of transactions off-chain, without the need for every transaction to be recorded on the main blockchain. 

By utilizing payment channels, participants can establish direct payment routes between each other, enabling instant and low-cost transactions.

Lightning Network vs. Bitcoin

The Bitcoin blockchain’s throughput is between 3 and 7 transactions per second, significantly lower than traditional payment systems like Visa. The Lightning Network functions as an overlay network. An overlay network is a computer network layered on top of another network. Its utility lies in its ability for users to send and receive Bitcoin (BTC) without every transaction recorded on the Bitcoin blockchain. 

Think of the Lightning Network’s payment channels as side streets that reduce congestion on the Bitcoin highway. Traditional Bitcoin transactions require on-chain conformations, which take time and incur fees. In contrast, Lightning Network transactions occur off-chain within payment channels resulting in faster transactions and lower fees.

The Lightning Network uses smart contracts to establish off-blockchain payment channels between pairs of users. Hence, users can conduct multiple transactions without each transaction needing to be broadcast to the entire network. 

Alleviating the pressure on the blockchain by facilitating smaller, more frequent transactions, making Bitcoin more suitable for everyday micro-transactions like buying a cup of coffee.

How Lightning Network Works

The Lightning Network operates on:

Payment channels 

Bidirectional channels between two participants that allow them to transact without directly involving the main blockchain. Participants open a payment channel to create a funding transaction on the Bitcoin blockchain, locking a certain amount of Bitcoin as collateral. The collateral secures the channel and ensures trustless transactions between the participants.

Multi-Hop routing 

To facilitate payments between participants who do not have a direct payment channel, the Lightning Network utilizes multi-hop routing. A path of interconnected payment channels helps transfer funds from the sender to the recipient through intermediate nodes.

Off-Chain transactions 

Leveraging payment channels and multi-hop routing, the Lightning Network enables off-chain transactions. These transactions occur off the main Bitcoin blockchain. Only the opening and closing of payment channels require on-chain transactions. Transactions on the Lightning Network can be executed instantaneously and privately. Thus reducing the burden on the main blockchain with every individual payment.

Does Coinbase Support Lightning Network?

As Coinbase is one of the leading cryptocurrency exchanges, it’s important to understand whether it supports the Lightning Network or not.

In 2023, Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong expressed intention to integrate the Lightning Network into the Coinbase platform. In response to a tweet criticizing him for “actively ignoring” the Lightning Network, Armstrong stated that Lightning is “great and something we’ll integrate”. However, he did not provide further details about the integration or a specific timeline for its implementation.

While Coinbase does not currently offer Lightning Network support, it’s worth noting that the cryptocurrency industry is dynamic and constantly evolving. As the Lightning Network gains further adoption and maturity, it remains possible that Coinbase may consider integrating it into its platform in the future.

Is Lightning Network Publicly Traded?

The Lightning Network is not a publicly traded asset or cryptocurrency. It is a layer 2 payment protocol built on top of Bitcoin. It functions as a protocol suite, facilitating micropayments of cryptocurrency through a network of bidirectional payment channels without requiring custody of funds. It works by establishing payment channels between participants, allowing for faster and more efficient transactions off-chain.

Payments on The Lightning Network

To make payments on the Lightning Network, follow these steps:

  1. Set up a Lightning Network-enabled Bitcoin wallet: Choose a wallet that supports the Lightning Network. Users can use wallets like Breez, Blue Wallet, Muun Wallet, or Wallet of Satoshi.
  2. Fund the Lightning Network wallet: Buy Bitcoin from a cryptocurrency exchange like Coinbase or Kraken and transfer it to the Lightning Network wallet.
  3. Open a payment channel: Open a payment channel with another user by obtaining the second party’s public key to establish the channel. Note that there may be a minimum channel size and other requirements set by peers.
  4. Allocate funds to the payment channel: Once the channel is established, allocate funds from the Lightning Network wallet to the payment channel. This amount will be used for Lightning Network transactions.
  5. Initiate a payment: To make a payment on the Lightning Network, provide the recipient’s Lightning Network invoice or payment request, which includes the amount and destination information. The wallet should have an option to send payments using the Lightning Network.
  6. Confirm and settle the payment: The Lightning Network payment routing process will securely transfer the funds through the network of channels. The payment is confirmed when the recipient acknowledges receiving the funds.

Does Ethereum Use The Lightning Network?

Ethereum does not utilize the Lightning Network. The Lightning Network is specifically designed for Bitcoin and operates as a separate network that extends Bitcoin’s capabilities. 

It’s important to note that Ethereum and Bitcoin are separate blockchain networks with different design philosophies and approaches to scalability. While both networks aim to improve transaction efficiency, they employ separate strategies to achieve scalability goals.

Lightning Network Costs and Fees

When a payment is made using the Lightning Network, the fee one pays is based on the value or amount of the transaction, not the size of the transaction in terms of data or bytes.

In traditional on-chain Bitcoin transactions, the fee is typically calculated based on the transaction size, measured in bytes. The larger the transaction size, the higher the fee. This is because on-chain fees are determined by factors such as the limited block space and the level of network congestion. However, in the Lightning Network, fees are based on the amount being sent. 

This means that regardless of the size or complexity of the transaction, the fee structure is designed so that micro-payments, transacted in satoshis (sats), and frequent transactions can be made more cost-effective, as it allows for lower fees for smaller payment amounts. Fees are then paid to incentivize the Lightning Network node operators who facilitate the routing of payments.

This low-cost nature of the Lightning Network has attracted more users and capital, further increasing its adoption. However, it’s important to note that Lightning Network fees are subject to market forces and can vary depending on network demand and channel capacities.

Lightning Network Success Rate

The Lightning Network has the theoretical capability to handle millions of transactions per second. However, to achieve this scalability, certain challenges need to be addressed. A report from River  highlighted that 1.3% of payments failed. Lightning payments fail because no route is made available or a route takes longer than one minute so it times out. 

These issues of timeouts and unavailable routes need to be solved to enable millions or near-infinite payments on the Lightning Network. Funds are not lost when a payment times out but it is a reflection of poor user experience. 

Having said this over the years the Lightning network has registered a success rate of 98.7% servicing thousands of daily transactions at an average transaction size of 230K satoshis and a medium transaction size of 24K satoshis. This is a huge improvement compared to 2018 when $5 transactions were failing 48% of the time. 

As more node operators come online in the future, they will have access to improved data and tools, allowing them to achieve a success rate of 99% or higher for payments. Automation and machine learning will also play a role in enabling nodes to make better decisions on routing payments effectively. These advancements will contribute to the Lightning Network’s incredible reliability and scalability potential.

Choosing Between Bitcoin and Lightning Network

When deciding between Bitcoin and the Lightning Network for transactions some factors should be considered. Here is a brief analysis of the use cases and benefits of each option:

Bitcoin Network:

  • Bitcoin is the original decentralized digital currency and operates on its blockchain.
  • It is suitable to use this network for larger transactions that serve as a store of value or for transactions that are larger, more important payments.
  • Bitcoin’s scalability is limited, causing congestion and slower transaction times.
  • Transaction fees can be high during peak periods, and confirmations on the blockchain may take minutes or hours. Hence, the importance of the transactions should be weighed before deciding which to use.

Lightning Network:

  • The Lightning Network is a layer-two solution built on top of the Bitcoin blockchain that addresses Bitcoin’s scalability issues mentioned above.
  • It enables near-instant and low-cost transactions by using payment channels off-chain.
  • The Lightning Network is suitable for smaller transactions, such as everyday purchases like buying a cup of coffee or unimportant immaterial payments.
  • Transaction fees are typically lower or even non-existent, and transactions can be completed instantly.

In summary, if one needs to make larger transactions or prioritize Bitcoin’s store of value, using Bitcoin directly on its blockchain may be more appropriate. However, for smaller and faster transactions with lower fees, the Lightning Network is an efficient solution. It is important to assess a specific use case and requirements to determine which option suits your needs best.


The Lightning Network has the potential to revolutionize digital payments and make Bitcoin more suitable for everyday transactions. Its ability to process smaller transactions quickly and with lower fees makes it an attractive option for microtransactions. It has gained traction, increasing adoption and use cases emerging in various domains.

However, it’s important to note that the future of any technology is subject to various factors and uncertainties. Further research, development, and real-world implementation will be necessary to fully realize the potential of the Lightning Network and overcome any challenges that may arise. 


What is the Lightning Network and how does it address the scalability challenges of the Bitcoin blockchain? 

The Lightning Network is a layer-two payment channel network designed to tackle the scalability issues of the Bitcoin blockchain. It enables participants to conduct numerous off-chain transactions without recording each transaction on the main blockchain by utilizing payment channels

How does the Lightning Network work compared to Bitcoin? 

The Lightning Network operates as an overlay network on top of the Bitcoin blockchain. It functions through payment channels, which are bidirectional channels between participants. Only the opening and closing of payment channels require on-chain transactions.

Does Coinbase support the Lightning Network? 

As of 2023, Coinbase does not currently support the Lightning Network. However, Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong has expressed the intention to integrate the Lightning Network into the Coinbase platform in the future.

Is the Lightning Network publicly traded? 

No, the Lightning Network is not a publicly traded asset or cryptocurrency. It is not traded on any public exchanges.


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