Using Bitcoin to top up your cellphone minutes

JISHOU, HUNAN — Here’s a practical use for Bitcoin: I just topped up my friend’s cellphone account by sending Bitcoin from my phone’s wallet.

My friend Laura is in Beijing and for various reasons not pertinent to this discussion, asked me to top up her cellphone account. Normally. I could do it from my computer by logging into my online bank account services and sending funds to top up any Chinese cellphone number.

Trouble is, the entire campus hasn’t had Internet access since 11:30 am (it’s now 4 pm), and she needed the funds right away.

So, I could have walked to the campus China Mobile office — in the pouring rain — and put in cash money — assuming their Internet was working — but I decided to try a new service called Piiko a try.

Piiko allows you to top up cellphone accounts worldwide just by entering the country code + phone number and paying with Bitcoin. I had about $20 in my cell’s Bitcoin wallet, so I tried sending half that to Laura’s account.

It worked!

Here are the details.

  • To use it with your mobile phone, you need to have a Bitcoin wallet on your phone, or WiFI access, so you can tap your online Coinbase or Ripple wallet.
  • Enter country code + phone number.
  • Select desired top-up amount.
  • Tap/click the provided Bitcoin address link.
  • Tell your browser to use the installed Bitcoin wallet to handle the link. The address and amount are filled in automatically.
  • Tap/click send.

Piiko credits the cellphone account after three confirmations on the blockchain (the online Bitcoin transaction ledger). That took less than 30 minutes. They charge a small fee, less than 1%.

I confirmed with Laura that her account was credited. Mission accomplished!

Meanwhile, China is making life hard for us Bitcoin users. It is now impossible to transfer yuan from our onshore bank accounts to any of the Bitcoin exchanges based in China. In addition, it seems the Great Firewall of China is now blocking access to offshore exchanges that apparently were being used by Chinese to trade Bitcoin. including, and the Hong Kong-based

At least two Chinese Bitcoin exchanges have closed up shop, and the surviving ones are regrouping, perhaps to negotiate a peace deal with China’s banking authorities.

The People’s Bank of China, which is more or less like the Federal Reserve, has issued several directives to China’s banks and third-party payment processors to cease all activity related to Bitcoin and to close all accounts of businesses dealing with Bitcoin.

These mandates have closed off most direct deposits to the exchanges (Not all yet, because This Is China) and killed many of the voucher programs, whereby a user buys an e-voucher containing secret codes to enter at a Bitcoin exchange for credit in yuan.

© 2007 Gary Larson

My suspicion is that the biggest exchanges are trying to work out deals with the central authorities, to make Bitcoin more palatable to Beijing. The free-wheeling, speculative Bitcoin markets, and the threat of giving Chinese a way to easily move their funds offshore, did not go over well with China’s very conservative banking establishment. The CEOs of the five biggest exchanges released a joint statement several days ago pledging to limit speculation and exert more control over their markets, suggesting (to me at least) that authorities were offering them something in exchange for their bowing and scraping.

Or maybe leniency, as in no jail time.

Ripple, on the other hand, seems to be flying under central banking authorities’ radar for now. So I’ve been able to use the Ripple network to transfer money between my Chinese and American bank accounts for next to nothing. It takes a little time, but hey, time is money, just like Einstein said.

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