It seems distant now, but there was a time when cable companies were part of a fledgling industry struggling to gain traction against the dominant media player of the day — traditional, over-the-air broadcast TV. At roughly the same time, cellular providers were beginning to make inroads with consumers, drawing them gradually away from their old landline phones.

While they may have started out as relatively small disruptors, both industries are now behemoths in the global economy. And like many in their position, they've naturally sought to preserve their power through a mix of business acumen and political strategy. It's a predictable cycle.

This raises a natural question: Could many of today's new, exciting entrants — such as online streaming video companies that are contributing to big changes in the cable business — end up in the same position as the very industries they're trying to disrupt?

"Everybody grows up," said Tom Wheeler, the nation's top telecom regulator, to me Thursday as I interviewed him on C-SPAN's tech policy series, "The Communicators."

Wheeler speaks from direct experience. The chairman of the Federal Communications Commission was once the chief lobbyist for the cable and wireless industries precisely during the time that they were working to become mainstream. Now, Wheeler sits on the opposite side of the table, meeting with officials who are trying to get the FCC to act in their interests.

Lately, Wheeler has taken steps intended to create new opportunities for streaming media companies and to shield them from businesses that have an incentive to harm them. For example, one reason the FCC has cited for blocking Comcast's merger with Time Warner Cable is the potential threat that a united company would pose to online video. The idea, officials have said, is that such a large combined company would be able to use its dominance in broadband to force streaming companies — who can't get to consumers without the Internet — to agree to unfavorable terms.

What makes this situation more complicated is that cable, telecom and other large industries see clear opportunities in online video, and they are quickly adapting to meet them. Comcast has announced its own streaming video app. So has Verizon. T-Mobile partners with online video providers to exempt them from data caps. And AT&T has been cross-promoting DirecTV on smartphones and tablets.

That's not all. Longtime veterans of the cable world, such as HBO and Showtime, also offer their content in a streaming app. Twitter just signed a deal with the NFL to stream Thursday night football games. Companies from different industries all have their fingers in the streaming video pie. And that makes it a little harder to tell who has power over whom.

Wheeler declined to say exactly how or if streaming video companies might someday evolve from darlings to despots.

"My crystal ball is foggy in terms of what things look like," he said.

But looking back at his own past, his grasp of the historical pattern seemed clear.

"We were the insurgents," Wheeler said of his time representing cable and wireless. "And the incumbents [then] weren't terribly thrilled about this new competition that they were facing. But everybody grows up. And today, those industries are themselves facing new insurgent challenges."