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Cryptocurrency exchanges look to speed up bitcoin transactions

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Two of the biggest cryptocurrency exchanges are aiming to make bitcoin transactions faster and cheaper with a new software update announced this week.

Both Coinbase and Bitfinex said they are adopting a software called SegWit, which bitcoin bulls and one exchange say should lower fees by as much as 20 percent while speeding up transactions.

“The most noticeable changes in the short term should be more efficiency when transacting,” said Alex Sunnarborg, founding partner at crypto hedge fund Tetras Capital. “SegWit adoption is undoubtedly positive for bitcoin as it greatly impacts transaction fees, speed, and future tech possibilities, all areas in which alternative crypto assets like Bitcoin Cash and Ethereum compete with and often criticize bitcoin on.”

Bitcoin enthusiasts have split over the best way to improve the cryptocurrency network’s efficiency. An upgrade called SegWit2x was called off in the fall after it lost widespread support.

Meanwhile, bitcoin transaction fees soared well above $20 in the last few months and confirmation times could take longer than a day. Some users were so frustrated with fees, and unable to compromise on blockchain size increases, that they “forked” bitcoin, and created bitcoin cash this summer.

Source: BitinfoCharts

The software Segregated Witness, or SegWit, slightly increases the block size. As the number of transactions that fit into each block goes up, transactions get faster. SegWit went live in August as Bitcoin’s skyrocketing popularity led to some slowdowns on the network.

Bitfinex, which facilitates about 38 percent of all U.S. dollar-bitcoin trading volume according to CryptoCompare, announced the software roll-out on Tuesday.

“We are delighted that through this implementation we can provide our customers with bitcoin withdrawal fees that are up to 20 percent lower, as well as faster-than-ever transaction speeds,” Bitfinex Chief Technology Officer Paolo Ardoino said in a statement.

San Francisco-based exchange Coinbase, which does 17 percent of all U.S. dollar bitcoin trading volume according to CryptoCompare, also tweeted the software update this week. The first phase will kick off this week, and should be fully available by the middle of next week, the company tweeted Tuesday.

Bitcoin prices shrugged off the news, and fell 7 percent Wednesday, trading near $10,500. The cryptocurrency is down more than 40 percent year to date. Ethereum dropped more than 4 percent, trading near $832, and is down 37 percent year to date.

The software news could mean more for long-term sentiment than short-term prices, said Brian Kelly, CNBC contributor and CEO of BKCM.

“It’s very good for the ecosystem,” Kelly said. “We’re making progress on the technology front, that takes the criticism that fees are too high out of picture.”

Ethereum bull Benjamin Roberts agreed that the software update is a positive long-term sign for bitcoin, adding that more people may be open to the cryptocurrency if transaction fees fell. But it still remains to be seen if the update alone is “enough,” he said.

“It’s an incremental improvement,” said Roberts, founder and CEO of Citizen Hex. “It’s good that different players are adopting the changes but it’s a very small step on the way to what needs to be a significant improvement.”



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More than 1,000 arrested at pro-Navalny demonstrations

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Law enforcement officers detain a participant in an unauthorized rally held by supporters of Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny in Sennaya Square.

Alexander Demianchuk | TASS | Getty Images

More than 1,000 people have been arrested in Russia after attending unauthorized protests in support of the jailed Putin critic Alexei Navalny.

Demonstrations took place across Russia on Wednesday with rallies in the major cities of Moscow and St Petersburg attracting the highest number of attendees, despite a current ban on protests in Russia.

Supporters of opposition activist Navalny take part in an unsanctioned rally in support of jailed opposition leader Alexey Navalny, in Moscow, Russia on April 21, 2021.

Anadolu Agency | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

OVD-Info, an independent NGO that monitors protests in Russia, said on Twitter the protests had taken place in more than 90 cities across Russia and had led to more than 1,600 arrests, although the number is hard to verify. The monitoring group also said there were reports that police had used tear gas and stun guns on protesters, but these are unverified.

Activists shout slogan during an unsanctioned protest rally in support of jailed opposition leader Alexey Navalny at Manezhnaya Square in front of Moscow’s Kremlin on April 21, 2021 in Moscow, Russia.

Mikhail Svetlov | Getty Images News | Getty Images

Figures on the number of people that attended protests differ wildly. Navalny’s team have claimed 60,000 people attended the protest in Moscow, while Open Media estimated 25,000 were on Moscow’s central Tverskaya street alone, according to the Moscow Times. Russia’s Interior Ministry played down the figures, however, estimating a turnout of around 6,000 in Moscow and 4,500 in St. Petersburg, with hundreds of demonstrators at other locations across Russia, according to its Facebook page.

Demonstrations in support of Navalny were called by his team as the opposition leader was moved to a prison hospital earlier this week after becoming ill while carrying out a hunger strike in prison.

Supporters of opposition activist Navalny take part in an unsanctioned rally in Tverskaya Street.

Mikhail Tereshchenko | TASS | Getty Images

Law enforcement officers detain a participant in an unauthorized rally held by supporters of Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny in St Petersburg.

Peter Kovalev | TASS | Getty Images

There were reports of several arrests of members of Navalny’s team ahead of the unsanctioned rallies with Lyubov Sobol, who features regularly on Navalny’s popular YouTube channel, and Kira Yarmysh, his spokeswoman, both detained in Moscow, their lawyers said, according to Reuters.

The U.S. administration has warned the Russian government to not let Navalny die in custody, adding that there will be “consequences.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin made no mention of Navalny in his “state of the union” address on Wednesday, as protests took place. However, he warned the West against any provocations of Russia and crossing its “red lines.”

Russian riot police officers block a street during a rally in support of jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, in central Saint-Petersburg on April 21, 2021.

OLGA MALTSEVA | AFP | Getty Images

Last summer, Navalny was medically evacuated to Germany from a Russian hospital after he was poisoned by a chemical nerve agent.

The German government said toxicology reports showed “unequivocal evidence” that Navalny was exposed to a nerve agent in the Novichok family, which was developed by the Soviet Union. Toxicology tests conducted in France and Sweden also came to the same conclusion.

Navalny has accused Putin of ordering the poison attack, although Putin and the Kremlin have repeatedly denied having a role in the poisoning.

Russian police officers stand guard around the Kremlin Palace and Red Square on April 21, 2021.

Anadolu Agency | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images



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Shanghai China auto show flying cars; Buffett-backed BYD stays clear

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Less than half a year since revealing a flying vehicle prototype, Chinese electric car start-up Xpeng unveiled a second model at the Shanghai auto show in April 2021.

Evelyn Cheng | CNBC

SHANGHAI – Flying cars may have made headlines at this year’s Shanghai Auto Show, but China’s BYD — which is backed by Warren Buffett — is sticking to ground vehicles for now.

This week, Chinese electric car start-up Xpeng debuted its second prototype for a flying vehicle the company claims has already undergone eight years of development. The new model resembles a flying car more than the initial version revealed in Beijing in September, which looked more like a human-carrying drone.

Geely showed off a Volocopter electric-powered “air taxi” for the first time in China at the Shanghai auto show in April 2021.

Evelyn Cheng | CNBC

Xpeng isn’t the only one looking to the skies.

Companies including Hyundai, German start-up Lilium, and China-based Ehang are developing flying vehicles that can carry individuals.

Hangzhou, China-based Geely, which owns Volvo, showed off in Shanghai an “air taxi” developed by its joint venture partner Volocopter.

‘We’re more focused on road transportation’

One of the companies’ selling points for flying vehicles is the country’s growing urban street traffic. However, while the level of consumer demand remains unclear, regulation has prevented wider use of flying cars.

But there are many ways to fix the problem of street congestion, said Li Yunfei, a spokesperson for BYD, in comments that CNBC translated from Mandarin. “Right now,” he said, “we’re more focused on road transportation.”

Li said the flying models aren’t all that different from helicopters.

Backed by investing guru Buffett, BYD sold more than 100,000 cars in the first quarter, more than half of which were new energy vehicles, a category which includes pure electric and hybrid cars.

The company announced at the auto show a new version of its electric car operating system that comes with its internally developed “Blade” battery. BYD plans to sell this battery system to third-party automakers and already counts state-owned high-end Chinese car maker Hongqi as customer for the Blade battery, Li said.

Buyers of BYD’s luxury Han electric car can customize the interior, as shown in this model displayed at the auto show in Shanghai in April 2021.

Evelyn Cheng | CNBC

Last summer, BYD’s luxury Han sedan became the company’s first car to use the Blade battery. The vehicle has become one of the most popular in the new energy category, ranking third in sales nationwide during the first quarter. Only the Hongguang Mini EV and Tesla‘s Model 3 outsold it, according to the China Passenger Car Association’s sales rankings.

Li said 70% of Han vehicles sold are pure-electric battery-powered models. Beginning this month, BYD said it plans to use the “Blade” battery in all of its pure-electric cars.

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More than 314,000 new Covid cases

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Medical oxygen cylinders at a charging station during the second wave of Covid-19 pandemic.

Naveen Sharma | SOPA Images | LightRocket | Getty Images

India reported a record number of daily Covid-19 cases on Thursday as the country’s second wave of coronavirus shows no signs of slowing down.

There were 314,835 new cases and 2,104 deaths over a 24-hour period, according to government data. That surpassed the word’s previous highest single-day increase in cases held by the United States.

India’s first wave of infection peaked around September following last year’s national lockdown between late-March and May, which had significant economic consequences.

Cases began rising again in February and in the subsequent months large crowds, mostly without masks, gathered for religious festivals and political rallies.

So far in April, India has reported more than 3.78 million new cases and over 22,000 deaths.

While the reported death toll is rising, some media reports suggest that the official number may be under-reported.

Situation on the ground

The picture on the ground is grim. Even as officials insist the situation is under control, hospitals are overwhelmed, turning away patients due to a shortage of beds — including those who are critically ill. In some instances, non-related patients are being forced to share beds, according to media reports.

Health-care facilities are also low on oxygen supply and the government is reportedly diverting oxygen intended for industrial use to medical facilities instead.

India’s Health Minister Harsh Vardhan said in a tweet that the federal government is monitoring supply and demand for oxygen and increased the quota for several states and regions including Maharashtra, the epicenter of the country’s second wave.

There is also growing concern about the double mutation of a Covid-19 variant that was discovered in India, which could make the virus more contagious.

Most states have stepped up social restrictions such as introducing night curfews and some have entered partial lockdowns.

India has so far administered more than 132 million vaccine doses as worries mount over supply shortages. The number of people who have completed their inoculation is still small compared to the country’s 1.3 billion population. Starting May 1, anyone above 18 years old will be eligible for inoculation.

The government recently approved around $610 million in grant funding for Covid-19 vaccine-makers Serum Institute of India and Bharat Biotech to boost production capacity, according to media reports. 

Serum Institute, the world’s largest vaccine maker by volume, said in a statement this week that it will scale up vaccine production over the next two months. It said 50% of capacity would be used to serve the government’s vaccine program and the rest would be for state governments and private hospitals to roll out shots.

Serum Institute is producing AstraZeneca’s vaccine, which is known locally as Covishield.

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