But, as always, the miners’ biggest challenge came from bitcoin itself. The mere presence of so much new mining in the Mid-Columbia Basin substantially expanded the network’s total mining power; for a time, Carlson’s mine alone accounted for a quarter of the global bitcoin mining capacity. But this rising calculating power also caused mining difficulty to skyrocket—from January 2013 to January 2014, it increased one thousandfold—which forced miners to expand even faster. And bitcoin’s rising price was now drawing in new miners, especially in China, where power is cheap. By the middle of 2014, Carlson says, he’d quadrupled the number of servers in his mine, yet had seen his once-massive share of the market fall below 1 percent.
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Bitcoin mining is a peer-to-peer process of adding data into Bitcoin’s public ledger in order to verify and secure a contract. Groups of recorded transactions are gathered in blocks and then added into the Bitcoin blockchain. Bitcoin mining requires a lot of resources to protect the network from the possibility of altering past transaction data by making all attempts in changing blocks inefficient for the intruder. Bitcoin mining is rewarded by the network through transaction fees and subsidies of new coins to encourage miners to spend their resources on mining new Bitcoin blocks. As Bitcoin mining is increasingly difficult, it has become impossible to attempt mining as an individual. As a result, most Bitcoin mining is being done by mining pools, which include several participants sharing their reward. Bitcoin mining is controversial, as it is a great tool for securing transactions but complicating the scaling of the network.
Indeed, for a time, everything seemed to come together for the miners. By mid-2013, Carlson’s first mine, though only 250 kilowatts in size, was mining hundreds of bitcoins a day—enough for him to pay all his power bills and other expenses while “stacking” the rest as a speculative asset that had started to appreciate. By then, bitcoin was shedding its reputation as the currency of drug dealers and data-breach blackmailers. A few legitimate companies, like Microsoft, and even some banks were accepting it. Competing cryptocurrencies were proliferating, and trading sites were emerging. Bitcoin was the hot new thing, and its price surged past $1,100 before settling in the mid-hundreds.
Bitcoin’s first mover advantage, popularity, and network effect has cemented it as the most popular cryptocurrency with the largest market cap. Rivals like Litecoin may have numerous technical advantages over Bitcoin’s algorithm (see more about that here), but they only hold a fraction of Bitcoin’s market cap and their dwindling communities largely consist of loyalists, speculators, and antagonistic anti-Bitcoin buyers.