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Abra set out in to make mobile money movement cheap and fast worldwide, using the bitcoin network as rails. But lately the fees for transferring value on that network have risen, creating a predicament for the startup: For a time, Abra absorbed the additional cost. But late last week, Abra notified its users that starting Aug. Abra also allows users to keep their balances on its app in fiat currency.
Sending money to another Abra user will remain free, as will paying a merchant with the app and adding funds via bitcoin or a bank account.
Bitcoin, once hailed as a fast and low-cost payment option, has become slower and more expensive to settle as the number of users increased, creating congestion in the network.
An impasse in the bitcoin community over how to scale the network has led one faction that wanted to expand capacity faster to start a rival currency, rather confusingly called Bitcoin Cash. The new coin was expected to split off from the main bitcoin blockchain sometime Tuesday. The rising fees on the main chain call into question the long-ballyhooed potential for bitcoin to be a solution for the underbanked and unbanked populations.
On the one hand, as an open network anyone can download the software for a bitcoin wallet without asking permission it is in a sense the most inclusive financial system imaginable. But for now, bitcoin transfers are priced like a luxury good. Fees are not his main concern, however. His venture capital firm is an investor in Ripple, a startup that pivoted from offering cryptocurrency to the masses to selling enterprise software to banks.
On the other hand, to the extent physical cash still circulates through the economy, regulators may tolerate the use of cryptocurrencies, Greenspan said.
Andrew Barnard, co-founder of Bitstop, which operates a fleet of over 40 bitcoin vending machines in Florida, estimated that about half his customers are unbanked or underbanked. Barhydt said he expects throughput on the main bitcoin blockchain to increase because of several possible upgrades: Segregated Witness, a different way to store data; an increase in the block size, now capped at one megabyte; and the Lightning Network, which will allow smaller transactions to be done off the main bitcoin blockchain before being settled on the ledger.
Despite the uncertainties, Barnard and Barhydt expressed confidence that more people will need bitcoin in the future. Updated August 2, at This article was updated to include the Bitstop CEO's rationale for estimating that half its customers are unbanked or underbanked, and a more precise figure for the company's fleet of machines.
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