Ethereum has been grabbing the headlines a lot lately. From the rising popularity of DeFi and NFTs to being Visa’s blockchain of choice for settling its first transaction, ETH price has been on the up, recently marking its latest all-time high of over $2,100. All this action surrounding the premier altcoin has undoubtedly been bullish for HODLers and yield farmers. But, what about regular users trying to interact with the Ethereum blockchain?
Rising gas fees on the network have been pricing them out of the market. According to BitInfoCharts, this time last year, the average transaction fee on the Ethereum network was around 8 cents. Today, users are facing regular averages of around $20 just to move funds, calling the promise of low fees and near-instant transfers of value into question. And for traders looking to avoid the volatility of cryptocurrencies by using stablecoins, such as the ERC20 versions of USDT or USDC on Ethereum, high fees create a barrier.
In tandem with rising fees comes rising network congestion. Not only do users have to pay prices on a par with PayPal to move their funds but they also have to wait for lengthy periods of time to do so. While the solution to all these problems is touted to be the long-awaited transition to a Proof of Stake blockchain (ETH 2.0), that could be a long time coming. So, how long will users really have to wait before Ethereum fees get lower?
Ethereum users cannot wait for years to resolve the problem of high fees as DeFi grows and Ethereum attracts increasing attention from investors. Interim solutions are needed in the meantime. Even Vitalik Buterin recognized that Ethereum scaling was a top priority — and that a solution in the shape of optimistic rollups was on the cards very soon.
If you think of the blockchain in layers, Ethereum is a layer 1 protocol, whereas rollups are a layer 2 solution that aggregate transactions and store them inside smart contracts to reduce congestion on the network and bring gas fees down.
The concept of rollups was first described way back in 2014, but they were referred to as “shadow chains.” And now that network congestion and fees have been thrust into the limelight once more, their utility is back on the table. How long will it take for them to be implemented? Some projects such as Polygon (formerly Matic) have already started using them with success and, optimistically (groan), rollups could act as the mid-term solution for Ethereum.
Berlin Hard Fork
Another solution for gas fees may lie in the upcoming Berlin Hard Fork, slated to take place on April 14, 2021. Months in the planning, however, it’s not certain just how much of a dent the hard fork will make in gas fees or whether it will improve congestion. Four main improvement protocols (EIPs) will be deployed in Berlin to make the network more robust and hacker-resistant, as well as tackling gas fees.
But different analysts have questioned how much of an effect the Berlin hard fork will really have on gas fees, citing that Ethereum has deep structural changes that need to be resolved for it to scale first before sustainable gas fees are achieved.
In the meantime, cryptocurrency industry participants are not sitting idle. Several PoS smart contract blockchains from Solana to Algorand have already started rolling out solutions to help traders avoid Ethereum’s high gas fees.
By running stablecoins like USDC and USDT on these blockchains, traders can move their funds from a crypto like BTC or ETH into a stablecoin almost instantly and for a cost of next to nothing. This is particularly appealing to high-frequency traders and users who simply want to move small-to-modest amounts of value without paying exorbitant fees.
There is also an increasing number of blockchains integrating EVM compatibility. This allows any smart contract deployed on the Ethereum blockchain to be deployed on them. dApp developers being priced out of the market by high fees can easily migrate their dApps to one of these blockchains and continue to develop without the high cost.
However, most of these come with trade-offs and are arguably centralized or flawed in some form or another. Moreover, network effect isn’t something that you simply knock out of the park straight away. Ethereum has much longer time in the market and still far and away the largest developer community, and number of dApps in the cryptosphere. It’s also the backbone of the majority of DeFi projects and is well-recognized now among a growing class of institutional investors.
The upcoming Berlin hard fork could give network users some temporary relief as far as high gas fees go and optimistic rollups seem to be the next likely major step forward for Ethereum before it transitions to ETH 2.0.
With a little bit of luck, we might expect to see lower gas fees on Ethereum by the middle of this month and at least sustainable rates coming soon while we wait for ETH 2.0. In the meantime, Ethereum will certainly be keeping its eyes open to the cohort of high throughput blockchains that are springing up around it promising faster transactions and lower costs.
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