In August 2017, Blockstream made an unprecedented contribution to Bitcoin, starting a free satellite service that broadcasts the Bitcoin blockchain from space, with coverage that includes Africa, Europe, South America and North America.
A little more than a year later, the Canadian company expanded the scope of its unidirectional blockchain transmission, including the Asia-Pacific region.
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Contrary to popular misconception, Blockstream did not launch its own satellites to allow the transmission of transactions in space and thus extend resistance to Bitcoin's censorship.
Instead, as confirmed by Blockstream engineer Grubles, the company leases existing satellite bandwidth from third parties to Blockstream's satellite network.
"We use leased bandwidth on geosynchronous commercial satellites to provide the Blockstream Satellite service," he told Bitcoin Magazine.
Grubles, best known for practical experimentation with mesh antennas and offline Bitcoin transactions, also clarified that the current network has 4 satellites.
Blockstream satellites, resistance to censorship and privacy
Like the internet's native currency, bitcoin requires a stable network connection to synchronize a complete node with the latest activity on the blockchain and transmit new transactions.
In some cases, however, Internet access is a luxury – and the reasons for this vary from government censorship to the lack of infrastructure in rural areas.
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Blockstream satellites help solve this problem, enabling anyone who can install a mesh antenna (the type that is also used for televisions) to participate in the global Bitcoin network.
"Being able to access Bitcoin blockchain data is important if you want to use Bitcoin to its fullest extent: being able to check the blocks and transactions yourself, instead of relying on others to do it for you," explained Grubles.
"Many people are unable to access the Internet in general, so now they can use the free satellite service to synchronize a fully validated Bitcoin node using cheap and widely available satellite TV hardware."
However, being able to circumvent political censorship or technical limitations imposed by geographical positioning is definitely not enough to guarantee resistance to censorship.
In the absence of privacy, there may be places around the world where connecting to the Bitcoin network unleashes sanctions and even physical uses of force.
Therefore, a certain degree of plausible denial is needed to prevent users from being targeted and thus increasing their resistance to censorship.
Blockstream satellites can solve this problem if Bitcoiners use them as unidirectional communication tools whose transmission is completely passive (with users receiving only one signal).
"If there are no broadcasts back to the satellites, it is almost impossible to determine whether someone is using their satellite dish to watch HBO or to download Bitcoin blocks, transactions and data from the satellite API," said Grubles.
Applications for Blockstream satellites
Based on the power to run Bitcoin off the planet, Grubles offered two satellite use cases that he considers “killer apps”.
"Using the Satellite API to transmit messages to everyone in the coverage area and, of course, the ability to keep a Bitcoin node in sync," he said.
The messaging use case is certainly useful and capable of strengthening sovereignty, even outside Bitcoin, as anyone who installs a mesh antenna can receive broadcast messages, avoiding censorship.
In cases of receipt only, communication embargoes such as the Great China Firewall or restrictions in North Korea can be circumvented without putting citizens at risk – all through accessible means.
For example, Bitcoiner SafetyFirst is known for broadcasting headlines over the Blockstream Satellite network that people living under strict regimes can intercept.
On the other hand, sending messages to Blockstream satellites is definitely dangerous and should be avoided by those who live under oppressive regimes.
Although receiving satellite signals is quite common, sending messages to a satellite is definitely the type of network activity that does not fly under the radar.
However, it is still a powerful tool for freedom of expression that rivals Radio Free Europe – which used to show anti-communist propaganda in the Warsaw Pact countries during the Cold War.
As noted by Grubles, the synchronization of a Bitcoin node is the other essential use case for Blockstream satellites.
The fact that anyone with a satellite dish and a small computer (such as a laptop or even a Raspberry Pi) can connect to the Bitcoin network and download the information from the blockchain is empowering and reassuring for bitcoiners worldwide.
This means that Bitcoin's reach around the world no longer depends on the benevolence of an Internet service provider, government or transnational company.
The fact that satellite access is free (although you still need an antenna and a computer) and without permission on a global scale only increases Bitcoin's sovereignty factor and increases the network's resilience.
While working quickly on an infrastructure that increases resistance to censorship, Grubles does not seem concerned that governments will soon ban Bitcoin.
"It is certainly possible, but I think it is unlikely to happen," he said. "However, it is always better to be proactive and create infrastructure so that you don't have to rely completely on the current system, just in case it does."
Of course, this is exactly what Grubles and the Blockstream team are doing in outer space.