* U.S buyout firm Carlyle owns 60 percent of Willcom
* Mobile firm seeking aid from state fund, Softbank, Advantage
* Willcom to cut equity to zero
(Adds detail, comment from company)
By Junko Fujita
TOKYO, Feb 18 (Reuters) - Japanese mobile communications provider Willcom Inc said on Thursday it has filed for bankruptcy with 206 billion yen ($2.3 billion) in debt, a move that will wipe out an investment made by U.S. buyout firm Carlyle.
Willcom, Japan’s fourth-largest provider of mobile phone and wireless data services, has been weighed down by heavy debts and has been struggling to expand its subscriber base in the country’s saturated and fiercely competitive wireless market.
The company, 60 percent owned by Carlyle, also said it had asked the state-backed Enterprise Turnaround Initiative Corp of Japan, as well as the nation’s No.3 mobile phone operator Softbank Corp (9984.T) and Japanese private equity firm Advantage Partners to provide it with financial aid.
Willcom in September applied for a procedure known as ADR, or alternative dispute resolution, under which a financially struggling company can negotiate with lenders on loan repayments outside court.
“After it became known that we had applied for ADR, it was difficult for us to attract new users,” Willcom President Yukio Kubota said at a news conference on Thursday.
“And that made it hard for us to keep to our plan to turn the business around to make debt repayments.”
Willcom’s current board members will resign and Kubota will become one of the firm’s administrators, he said.
Kubota also said the company will cut its equity to zero before potential investors inject money.
Willcom was founded as a mobile phone unit of KDDI (9433.T), using using so-called called PHS, or personal handy-phone system, technology.
PHS phones lured young users with cheaper fees and smaller models compared to cellular phones, but their attraction faded as cell phone technology improved.
In 2004, Carlyle and electronics maker Kyocera Corp bought a 90 percent stake in the company from KDDI for a combined total of 220 billion yen. KDDI still holds a 10 percent stake.
Willcom, however, has continued to struggle as it competes against NTT DoCoMo Inc (9437.T), KDDI and Softbank.
Competition increased after Emobile Ltd, the mobile phone unit of Internet access provider eAccess Ltd 9427.T, entered the market in March 2007.
Willcom’s subscriptions fell by 58,000 in January from December to 4.24 million, while EMobile increased its number of users by 63,300 to 2.18 million in the same period, according to an industry group.
The industry giant NTT DoComo had 55.5 million users in January.
The ETIC is also bailing out Japan Airlines Corp 9205.T, which failed in January. [ID:nSGE61G0LK]
Willcom director and senior adviser Kazuo Inamori is JAL’s new chief executive. Inamori is also the founder and honorary chairman of electronics firm Kyocera. ($1=91.20 Yen) (Reporting by Junko Fujita; Editing by Joseph Radford)