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Is It A Big Deal That Sheetz Now Has Bitcoin ATMs?

Gene J. Puskar
A man makes a purchase from a Pennsylvania Lottery machine, left, next to a Bitcoin ATM machine in a Sheetz convenience store in Pittsburgh, Tuesday, July 9, 2019.

Earlier this month, Sheetz made headlines when it announced it would be adding bitcoin ATMs to five of its Pennsylvania stores. However, bitcoin ATMs aren’t new to the Pittsburgh area, or to Pennsylvania.

There are at least a dozen within 10 miles of WESA’s South Side studios, and scores more in convenience stores and gas stations across the state. 

“There are dozens of companies that make bitcoin ATMs,” said University of Pittsburgh professor Chris Wilmer, who estimated there are "probably ... tens of thousands" of these ATMs in the world.

Wilmer is the editor of Ledger, an academic journal dedicated to cryptocurrencies and published by Pitt. While Pennsylvania isn’t leading the pack when it comes to embracing bitcoin, he said the state isn't lagging either.

“I think it probably perfectly follows where you would expect Pittsburgh to be ... with any new technology,” Wilmer said. “It's been ... in California for a while already. I can say confidently there are more bitcoin ATMs in California than in Pennsylvania and have been for some time.”

But Wilmer said what this does mean is that bitcoin is moving more into the mainstream. When announcing the addition of bitcoin ATMs, Sheetz vice president Ryan Sheetz said the chain was doing so to be innovative and give customers what they want.

How it works

For anyone wanting to use bitcoin, you first need a wallet. Bitcoin isn't technically stored anywhere; in fact, one of the main appeals of it is how it is built upon blockchain, a technology developed for bitcoin that is essentially a public ledger. Blockchain makes it very easy to track transactions and know if someone's accessed or hacked your bitcoin.

A wallet sets you up with two addresses: a public one that you can share with others who want to send you bitcoin, and a private one that you can use to send bitcoins to others. (However, there are other ways to store, buy and sell bitcoin, including through paper wallets and physical coins.) 

While many of these wallets, or apps, allow you to add U.S. currency via a credit card or bank account number, some do not. They’re simply a place to store, accept and send bitcoin.

That’s where the ATM comes in handy, Wilmer said.

“Ultimately ATMs are just one additional way to get bitcoins,” he said. 

It’s also a quick way to turn your bitcoin into a liquid asset or add more cash to your coffers. And while the term bitcoin ATM is most often used, they usually service a handful of cryptocurrencies, such as litecoin or ethereum.

A paperless currency future

While Sheetz is helping to move bitcoin into the mainstream, cryptocurrencies are still very much a fringe idea. But that’s not a bad thing, Wilmer said.

Anything that's new is fringe. And, it takes a while before it's adopted,” he said. “Some people think bitcoin will never be adopted widely because of its inherent flaws ... but so far empirically that has been a wrong assertion. Adoption has been growing by leaps and bounds over the years.”

In fact, Wilmer is quite confident that our reliance on cryptocurrencies will only continue to grow. 

“I'd almost bet my life that in 100 years human civilization is using cryptocurrencies,” Wilmer said. “At some point we will look back on the things that we use today, like state currencies or certainly paper money, and we'll think of it as, you know, very antiquated.”