On March 7, 2019, all the lights went out in Venezuela. Total blackout.
While the electricity crisis was already part of everyday life, the blackout paralyzed communications across the country. It also prompted Venezuelan Randy Brito to focus fully on the Locha Mesh initiative, an open-source project to enable the use of private messages and payments without an Internet connection.
During the outage earlier this year, Brito clearly understood that poor Internet infrastructure was a major barrier to crypto adoption. People used dollars during the power outage not because they preferred to touch money, but because they lacked alternatives.
"In Venezuela, the adoption of cryptocurrency can be very complicated," Brito told CoinDesk, adding:
"People may have trouble downloading a portfolio because of the lack of infrastructure."
Locha Mesh has already created two hardware prototypes, Turpial and Harpy, both acting as small routers that do not rely on local WiFi. Instead, they transmit messages on the "mesh" until a point of sale finally has an Internet connection. (This is reminiscent of the work of New York start-up goTenna.)
"These devices allow trading (during a power outage) by allowing users to send and receive payments via the bitcoin network," said Brito, describing them as "easy to carry and hide" for security reasons.
In March, these small devices created an experimental system that ran for 22 consecutive hours, connecting even Harpy devices to the Blockstream satellite and relaying this connectivity to other users via the Turpial device. We then focused on the possibility of making small quick payments using a resizing solution called Lightning Network.
"The Lightning network requires you to be connected, otherwise you will not know if your counterpart is lying," Brito said. "These nodes, these devices are still connected to the Lightning network."
This fight to use bitcoins without electricity is widespread in emerging markets, from Venezuela to Lebanon, through the Palestinian territories. So, Brito presented its latest mesh network hardware tools for such transactions during the 2019 Lightning conference in Berlin because Locha Mesh is currently looking for investors and donors. Its team of six people aims to start selling these devices in the first quarter of 2020.
"We are currently finishing the second prototype and the development kits," he said.
The team aims to provide an accessible and secure form of communication to anyone in the world, said Luis Ruiz, chief technology officer and co-founder of Locha, at CoinDesk.
"Basically, we provide a solution that is accessible to anyone who has no energy or access to the Internet and who needs a secure, decentralized and censorship-resistant means of communication."
Turpial prototypes by Locha Mesh, photo by Diana Aguilar for CoinDesk