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What's Behind the Bitcoin Transaction Fee Surge?

Transaction fees on Bitcoin have skyrocketed. Trust Machines breaks down why and what the surge could mean for Bitcoin.
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The enduring popularity of Ordinals and other collectible assets that emerged on the Bitcoin blockchain has impacted the Bitcoin network on multiple fronts. More recently, users have noticed that transaction fees on the network have skyrocketed, setting new records for Bitcoin fees on the network.

So how, exactly, did this surge happen? In this blog post, we'll break down what Bitcoin transaction fees are, their role in the Bitcoin ecosystem and what November's rise in Bitcoin transaction fees could mean for the network.

Transaction Fee Basics

Transaction fees are a fundamental component in most blockchain networks, including Bitcoin. These fees are paid by users whenever they initiate a transaction on the network. Specifically in Bitcoin's ecosystem, the transaction fees are collected by miners, serving as an incentive for them to maintain and uphold the network's integrity and functionality.

Miners not only earn transaction fees for their mining efforts but also receive predetermined block rewards. This arrangement establishes a symbiotic relationship between users and miners. Users depend on miners for the smooth operation and security of the network, while miners, especially as block rewards diminish over time, increasingly rely on transaction fees as a source of revenue to make mining a viable and profitable endeavor.

The structure of these transaction fees is dynamic and variable, primarily influenced by the network's usage at any given time. As the network becomes more congested with increased usage, the transaction fees tend to rise. This is because users are willing to pay more to ensure their transactions are processed and included in a block promptly. Recently, a significant uptick in transaction fees on the Bitcoin network has been observed, attributed in part to innovations such as inscriptions. These innovations, while beneficial in many respects, have contributed to the increased network congestion, subsequently leading to higher transaction fees. This recent trend underscores the evolving nature of blockchain networks and the need for continuous adaptation and optimization to balance user experience with network sustainability.

Transaction fees and Bitcoin halvings

Every roughly four years, the block rewards given to Bitcoin miners is reduced by half. This process is designed to reduce the rate of inflation in the Bitcoin ecosystem. For instance, miners currently earn 6.25 BTC per block, but following the next halving event scheduled in 2024, this reward will be reduced to 3.125 BTC per block. This halving mechanism ensures a gradual decrease in the rate of new Bitcoin introduced into circulation, mimicking the scarcity-driven appreciation model of precious metals like gold, something unique to Bitcoin that has attracted many users and investors.

Given this reduction in block rewards, the growth and robustness of the Bitcoin network become increasingly crucial. As the block reward diminishes, miners' reliance on transaction fees as a source of revenue becomes more pronounced. These transaction fees gradually become the primary incentive for miners to continue their crucial role in maintaining and securing the blockchain network.

This transition from block rewards to transaction fees as the main economic incentive for miners was anticipated by Satoshi Nakamoto, the creator of Bitcoin. In the Bitcoin whitepaper, Nakamoto envisioned a future where the creation of new bitcoins would eventually cease, halting further inflation. In this envisioned future, miners would sustain their operations predominantly through transaction fees, ensuring the long-term economic viability and security of the Bitcoin network. This foresight highlights the intricate balance between reducing inflation and maintaining miner incentive, ensuring the longevity and stability of Bitcoin as a decentralized digital currency.

What has Caused the Recent Increase in Fees?

In November, a remarkable increase in activity was seen on the Bitcoin network, primarily driven by the surge in daily inscriptions, also known as Ordinals. As a direct result of this heightened activity, transaction fees on the Bitcoin network experienced a significant increase. This correlation between increased network activity and rising transaction fees is a fundamental aspect of Bitcoin's economic model, where fees adjust based on demand for block space.

A striking example of this dynamic was observed on November 18, 2023, when a record-breaking $4.92 million in transaction fees were generated in a single day, primarily due to these inscriptions. Cumulatively, the total fees amassed from all inscription fees have amounted to a substantial $98 million. This surge in fees not only reflects the growing interest and activity in Bitcoin inscriptions but also underscores the network's capacity to accommodate and monetize diverse forms of digital interactions. 

The chart below from @data_always on Dune highlights the dramatic increase in fees in the month of November. For example, compared to November 1st, fees at the peak on November 16th were over 1500% higher.

Source: Dune

Complementing the rise of ordinals, BRC-20 tokens, particularly those like ORDI, have also been gaining popularity. The listing of such tokens on major cryptocurrency exchanges like Binance has drawn even more attention to these new digital assets. This growing interest in BRC-20 tokens further contributes to the network's activity, and can be visualized with the chart below. At its peak, over 97% of inscriptions were attributed to BRC-20 Mints.

Source: Dune

Before this November surge, Bitcoin miners were averaging 21.48 BTC per day from transaction fees. However, during the peak of this period, the daily earnings from transaction fees skyrocketed to 314 BTC, showcasing a dramatic increase. While these numbers have since moderated, they still remain significantly higher than pre-November levels, currently averaging around 81 BTC per day. This substantial increase in miners' revenue from transaction fees demonstrates the impact of new applications and tokens on the Bitcoin network, highlighting the evolving nature of its economic and operational landscape.

The Growing Importance of Bitcoin L2s

As the Bitcoin ecosystem evolves, L2 solutions are becoming increasingly crucial as highlighted by Muneeb Ali, Trust Machines CEO and Stacks Co-founder on X. These layers are expected to handle a significant portion of BTC transactions in the coming years, ideally surpassing the transaction volume on Bitcoin's L1. As emphasized by Muneeb, with the recent spike in transaction fees, the Bitcoin L1 becomes almost unusable for average users. It is not realistic to expect users to pay $50 to send BTC. With the Bitcoin market potentially growing to trillions in value, the role of L2s in its success cannot be overstated.

However, relative to their growing importance, Bitcoin L2s remain underfunded, especially when compared to the funding and market cap of Ethereum L2s. This disparity highlights the need for increased investment and development in Bitcoin L2s. Prominent examples like Lightspark and Trust Machines have seen substantial funding rounds, but the field requires more such initiatives.

Bitcoin L2s: The Big Four and Beyond

The "Big Four" of Bitcoin L2s — Lightning, Stacks, Rootstock, and Liquid — are leading the way, each with unique upgrades and developments in the pipeline. The Stacks Nakamoto release, for example, is an exciting development to watch. Moreover, the industry eagerly anticipates new solutions that reduce trust assumptions for BTC movement between L1 and L2, such as BitVM.

Given their current state, Bitcoin L2s arguably have the most potential for growth. The increasing interest from developers is a positive indicator of this demand. The time is ripe for more innovation in this space, and the community is bullish about the future of Bitcoin L2s as they evolve to meet the challenges and demands of the Bitcoin network.

What the Bitcoin Transaction Fee Surge Has Taught Us

The recent spike in Bitcoin transaction fees, notably in November, has underscored a pivotal moment in the evolution of the Bitcoin’s ecosystem. This increase, driven by new activities like inscriptions and the rise of BRC-20 tokens, has not only showcased the expanding functionality of Bitcoin but also brought to light the challenges of network congestion and rising transaction costs. With Bitcoin halvings reducing block rewards, the growing dependence on transaction fees underscores the need for a sustainable economic model while maintaining network integrity and accessibility.

This situation has brought Bitcoin's Layer 2 solutions into the spotlight as essential tools for mitigating the limitations of the main network, especially in handling small-value, high-volume transactions efficiently. As the cost of using Bitcoin’s Layer 1 becomes increasingly prohibitive for average users, Layer 2 technologies such as Lightning, Stacks, Rootstock, and Liquid offer promising alternatives. These platforms are expected to alleviate the burden on the L1, potentially handling a significant portion of Bitcoin transactions in the future and ensuring the network's viability as it scales.

However, the current underfunding of Bitcoin L2s, in comparison to their Ethereum counterparts, represents both a challenge and an opportunity. Addressing this gap is crucial for fostering innovation and scalability within the Bitcoin ecosystem. As Bitcoin continues to evolve, the successful development and adoption of L2 solutions will be pivotal in maintaining its position as a leading digital currency, balancing user experience with technological advancement and economic feasibility.